CAIRO // The rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah took a step closer to ending nearly four years of rancorous division yesterday, with both factions signing on to an Egyptian-brokered document in Cairo that could lead to Palestinian elections in a year.
Nabil Abu Rudeineh, an aide to Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority (PA) president and chairman of Fatah, expressed cautious optimism, saying that "there's almost an agreement. Hamas has signed the Egyptian paper".
Hamas had declined to agree to the Egyptian document, which Fatah signed two years ago. It sets out the parameters for Palestinian unity, including the thorny issues of holding elections and control over security.
But Mahmoud Zahar, a top Hamas leader, said the Islamist group signed on to the document after both sides ironed out differences, particularly concerning elections. The next step would be a formal signing ceremony in the coming days and the formation of an interim government until elections are held in a year.
"We are optimistic about the results of this agreement," he said.
News of the tentative accord was greeted with sceptism by Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Israel, as well as the United States, regard Hamas as a terrorist organisation, and the Israeli leader, in a statement released by his office, offered an ultimatum to Mr Abbas: "The Palestinian Authority has to decide on having peace with Israel or peace with Hamas. You can't have peace with both, because Hamas is committed to the destruction of the state of Israel and says so openly."
The statement concluded by saying that "raising the idea itself shows weakness in the Palestinian Authority and raises questions".
The accord comes amid regional unrest that has toppled long-serving leaders in Egypt and Tunisia, and demonstrations held by tens of thousands of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank last month. Those protests called on both factions to resolve their differences, which erupted into near-civil war in 2007 when Hamas forces seized control of the Gaza Strip from Fatah.
A united Palestinian political body would also likely offer an important boost for recent efforts by Palestinians in seeking out international recognition for an independent state.
Mr Abbas has sent his diplomats abroad to garner support after United States-brokered negotiations with Israel broke down last September, following Mr Netanyahu's refusal to renew a freeze on settlement construction.
An official at the US State Department reacted cautiously yesterday, saying that the "United States supports Palestinian reconciliation on terms which promote the cause of peace".
The US has bristled at Palestinian attempts at statehood outside the framework of negotiations. In February, it vetoed an overwhelming popular measure in the UN Security Council that would have condemned Israel's settlements.
In an apparent message to Hamas, the State Department official added that any Palestinian government must accept the "principles by renouncing violence, accepting past agreements, and recognizing Israel's right to exist", which were set out by the so-called Middle East peace Quartet - the US, European Union, Russia and the UN.
Hamas has both refused to recognise Israel and to stop fighting it.
A barrage of rockets fired by the Islamist group at Israel in March effectively scuttled a proposed visit to Gaza by Mr Abbas to again attempt reconciliation. Many speculated it was an attempt by Hamas, or at least some faction within the group, to deliberately thwart the effort.
The full details of yesterdays' tentative agreement were unclear.
Egypt's intelligence systems, which helped broker the agreement, released a vague statement yesterday, saying that the "consultations resulted in full understandings over all points of discussions, including setting up an interim agreement with specific tasks and to set a date for election".
Mr Zahar said both sides had tentatively agreed to form a committee that would run an election, as well as a judicial body that would deal with election disputes. There were still outstanding issues that must still be addressed, he said, including forming a high committee for security that would include all Palestinian factions.
Previous efforts to reconcile Hamas and Fatah have failed as a result of differences over monitoring elections and control over security forces.
The PA prime minister, Salam Fayyed, attempted to address the issue of security in a reconciliation proposal he put forward earlier this year. In effect, the idea involved Hamas and Fatah at least temporarily recognising each other's respective control over the West Bank and Gaza.
Hamas officials did not respond, claiming that they never received the proposal.
Chris Stanton reported from Cairo and Hugh Naylor from Jerusalem