In the celebratory atmosphere last week as the Palestinian unity government was sworn in, ending a seven-year feud between Fatah and Hamas, it was easy to overlook who was absent.
Hamas had agreed to remain in the shadows to placate Washington, which is legally obligated to refuse aid to a government that includes a designated terrorist group. The new Palestinian cabinet looked little different from its predecessor; Hamas' input was limited to three independents, all in low-level ministerial positions.
And because this transitional government is still operating within the confines of Israeli occupation, the three ministers from Gaza were refused permits to travel to the West Bank for the swearing-in ceremony on June 2.
The appointment of a temporary government of technocrats is likely to be the easiest phase of the reconciliation agreed in late April. The deal has endured so far -- unlike earlier agreements -- because Hamas, in even more desperate straits than its rival, Fatah, has capitulated.
For that reason, the United States and most of the world hurried to offer their blessing. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on the other hand, made dire warnings about the "strengthening of terror" and okayed 3,300 settler homes to punish the Palestinians.
A far trickier stage is still to come: the Palestinian cabinet under President Mahmoud Abbas needs to oversee a bitterly contested national election between Fatah and Hamas expected early next year.
The elections are seen as vital. Palestinians have had no say in who rules them since 2006, when Hamas was victorious. A year later, after brief and vicious fighting, Hamas and Fatah created separate fiefdoms in Gaza and the West Bank. Both need to prove their legitimacy at the ballot box.
Should voting take place, and Hamas win again, the US and others can be expected to boycott the new government -- withdrawing desperately needed aid -- as they did back in 2006.
But far more likely, Israel will not allow the elections to take place.
Eight years ago, in the months prior to voting, Israel initiated a wave of arrests of Hamas leaders in an attempt to stymie the democratic process. Israel also hoped to block voting in occupied East Jerusalem, which it considers part of its "eternal, indivisible" capital. But the White House -- realizing a ballot without Jerusalem would lack credibility -- pressured Israel into grudging acquiescence.
Less well remembered is that Fatah quietly conspired with Israel to try to postpone the national vote. Fearing that Hamas would sweep the board, Fatah hoped to use Israeli intransigence in Jerusalem as the necessary pretext to delay the wider elections to a time more favourable to its candidates.
Netanyahu has already announced that he will not allow an election in East Jerusalem, as well as indicating that Hamas will be barred from running elsewhere. That is hardly surprising: Israel has spent the past eight years eradicating Hamas from Jerusalem by jailing its leaders or expelling them to the West Bank.
But Fatah's behavior in 2006 hints at an even bigger obstacle to consummating the reconciliation. The reality is that Hamas and Fatah have entered the process only out of mutual despair.
Hamas' political and geographical isolation in Gaza has plumbed new depths since the Egyptian regime turned hostile. Blockaded on all sides, Hamas has seen its support erode as the enclave's economic crisis has deepened. A deal with Fatah seems the only way to open the borders.
The credibility of Fatah and Abbas, meanwhile, has been steadily undermined by years of cooperation with Israel -- all while the settlements have expanded -- in the hope of extracting a concession on statehood. With little to show for it, Fatah is increasingly seen as Israel's craven security contractor.
Abbas' new strategy -- creating a momentum towards statehood at the United Nations -- requires that his government-in-waiting establish its democratic credentials, territorial integrity, and a national consensus behind the diplomatic option.
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