Hamas and Fatah representatives showing deep concern over failed talks (AFP/File/Khaled Desouki)
Hamas and Fatah have announced that their talks in Cairo on a government of national unity have ended without agreement, to be resumed (perhaps) in three weeks. While some Egyptian sources are trying to spin this as a simple pause, with no deeper implications, few Arab commentators are buying it. Combined with the failure of the Doha summit and the formation of an extreme right-wing Israeli government, the suspension of Palestinian unity talks signals a rather depressing end to months of feverish diplomacy. Some brief thoughts:
Who is to blame for the failure of the talks? Hamas blames Fatah for being subservient to foreign influences (i.e. the U.S. and Israel), and Cairo for being too nakedly pro-Abu Mazen in its mediation. That's almost certainly right. Fatah blames Hamas for refusing to make basic concessions towards the Quartet conditions necessary for the international community to deal with a unity government. That's also almost certainly right. The Egyptians blame Qatar and Iran for stiffening the resolve of Hamas, while a lot of people blame Egypt for mismanaging the dialogue and being too obviously biased towards Fatah. Some point the finger at Washington, for not offering any positive signals which would lead either side to make the necessary conditions. The net takeaway from all those pointing fingers? The failure was probably over-determined.
Is the failure a bad thing? That depends on what you hoped to see accomplished. A lot of observers and players saw the talks as holding purely instrumental value, as an attempt to force Hamas to capitulate to Abu Mazen's leadership and the Quartet principles. They simply view Hamas as beyond the pale and would have seen any agreement which included them on more neutral terms as a failure -- and so the suspension of the talks may appear as a net positive. But others of us saw an urgent necessity in overcoming the Hamas-Fatah divide, for the reintegration of the West Bank and Gaza, the channeling of desperately needed reconstruction assistance to Gaza, and the negotiation of a coherent single Palestinian government and negotiating team. For what it's worth, 73% of Palestinians wanted to see a unity government. If you want to be glass half-full about it, I suppose you could argue that the new Israeli government wasn't going to deal with a Palestinian government of national unity anyway so they might as well take more time to get it right. But I'm more glass empty on this one, because...
Where do we go from here? Nowhere good, I fear.
I'm hoping that the Obama team has a plan for how to deal with all of this, beyond the West Bank First, Fatah Only concept which has been on public display thus far... or simply shifting over to the Syria track and putting the Palestinian track on the back burner. Really hoping. Because WBF/FO isn't going to work... and the Palestinian track has a way of not staying on the back burner.
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.