Reconciliation talks between rival Palestinian political factions Hamas and Fatah are set to resume in early February, and the recent election results in Israel — where moderates committed to a two-state solution performed better than expected — will surely color the proceedings.
So, too, will the steady slide toward political chaos in Mohammed Morsi’s Egypt. After all, Morsi orchestrated this fresh push for Palestinian unity and has been a steady hand in a region where extreme political sentiment tends to prevent genuine dialogue. As his own domestic political climate teeters on the brink of total chaos, whether the Muslim Brotherhood leader remains a credible powerbroker will be key to keeping the dialogue open (and productive).
That the Israeli right (and incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in particular) suffered a rebuke at the polls is another wildcard. One might expect the prospect of a tamed Netanyahu whose coalition partners insist he make an effort to jumpstart peace talks to further boost the unity process. But Hamas — which seized control of the Gaza Strip in 2007 after winning parliamentary elections — has tended to be skeptical of the prospects for a formal peace, especially with a Netanyahu-led government. Fatah, on the other hand — the moderate group led by Mahmoud Abbas that administers the West Bank — is likely to jump at the first opportunity to resume negotiations. Netanyahu’s lack of interest in forging a two-state solution hastened the thaw in relations between the two Palestinian camps (just as it apparently siphoned some centrist voters away from his right-wing coalition at the polls) and a less polarizing Israeli government may actually have the perverse effect of taking the wind out of the sails of the drive for reunification.
That being said, with Hamas signaling it will allow the Palestinian central elections committee work to resume in the Gaza Strip, and its leader Khalid Mashaal expressing confidence at the prospects for reunification in the not-so-distant future, the February talks have great potential. This is especially the case after the Hamas leader’s successful foray to Jordan, where he boosted the militant group’s brand by meeting with moderate King Abdullah II, a favorite of the West. Abdullah has his own reasons for making nice with Hamas — namely, a restless domestic opposition movement helmed by Islamic militants.
But whether Netanyahu is able to keep centrist peaceniks out of his governing coalition (perhaps by cobbling together ultra-Orthodox religious parties) will likely have a greater impact on the unity talks than any other development. If in February Israel appears likely to resume saber-rattling and apathy toward the peace process, genuine Palestinian unity will be within reach. If the elections there instead produce a meaningful reset in foreign policy, it will be up to a distracted Mohammed Morsi to find common ground.