Middle East peace
Wednesday's unexpected announcement that Fatah and Hamas negotiators have agreed to form an interim transitional government and hold elections within a year may be bringing to an end one of the most divisive and sorry chapters of the Palestinian national struggle.
The exhaustion of the two parties, the exasperation of the overwhelming majority of Palestinians, especially the youth, over continued divisions, and President Mahmoud Abbas's belief that negotiations with the current Israeli government are at a dead end, have all contributed to this dramatic development.
However, developments in the region, particularly the emergence of a more independently minded administration in Egypt and the popular uprising in Syria, have drawn the parties together. Mr Abbas has lost his most important regional patron, Hosni Mubarak, while Hamas is bewildered by the prospect of losing its own, Bashar al Assad. It seems that the Arab People's Awakenings have brought about another notable development in this extraordinary season of change.
As Mr Abbas and Khalid Meshaal sit down next Wednesday in Cairo to sign the agreement, they will know that there is plenty of work to do before Palestinian unity becomes a reality. The wounds are still fresh, especially for those in Gaza who in June 2007 experienced the infighting that killed more than 190 and injured nearly 1,000 of their own. For many, the divisions will not heal until prisoners held by both sides are released and there is a sustained practical effort to link the West Bank and the impoverished and isolated Gaza Strip.
For now, agreement has been achieved on the Egyptian paper, which was finalised and signed by Fatah one and a half years ago. Hamas had maintained that it had "serious comments" on the paper, yet has now signed it. Disagreements on how to determine the timing and supervision of elections, the formation and basic duties of the government, and crucially the formation of a higher security committee that will recommend the structure of a future Palestinian security apparatus, have apparently been resolved.
The security committee will include Palestinian security officers agreed upon by both sides. For now, the parties have settled that the PA's forces will ensure law and order in the West Bank, while Hamas's 15,000-strong police and security forces will do the same in Gaza. In addition, an election committee has been approved, where the main Palestinian factions will nominate up to 12 respected judges. The interim government will include nationally accepted technocrats, and the current legislative council, effectively moribund since 2007, will reconvene in the near future.
In the immediate term, the issue remains who will head the interim government, though it is difficult to imagine that the parties will not agree to retain Salam Fayyad, the international community's only choice. For now, however, Hamas is reassuring supporters that Mr Fayyad will not be prime minister or minister of finance. On this matter, we will have to wait and see.
Notably, the Arab League will supervise implementation of the agreement. This is a significant undertaking and reflects the determination of key Arab states who have grown tired of Palestinian infighting. This time, unlike the short-lived Palestinian unity government of 2007, there has to be greater Arab determination to support Palestinian national unity.
For the broader international community, particularly the US and Europe, sober and clear thinking is required to assess the significance of Wednesday's announcement. Israel has already reacted badly. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denounced the agreement and stated that Fatah and Mr Abbas had to choose between "peace with Israel and peace with Hamas".
However, for Mr Netanyahu, who has not seriously engaged in peacemaking for the last two years, this is a false choice to suggest. The US and Europe should not fall for it this time. Palestinian unity today presents the best opportunity to agree tomorrow on a national vision that accepts an independent Palestinian state on 1967 borders and therefore allows for the realisation of the two-state solution.
For those who have engaged with Hamas, it is clear that a national unity government will strengthen the politicians, not radicals, in the party and offer the best prospect of an extended period of calm in Israel. Some inside Hamas openly discuss the choice that they will face between armed resistance and an agreed Palestinian national vision that seeks to end Israel's occupation through a negotiated, political solution. A unity government also offers the opportunity to extend the Palestinian development and state-building project to Gaza, where more than 70 per cent of Gazans are receiving international aid and where Salafi-inspired extremism is a growing threat.
Ultimately, the changing regional landscape brought about Wednesday's announcement. Above all, the agreement is a dazzling achievement for Egypt's transitional government and its guarantor, the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces. Acting as an honest broker, it leaned on both Fatah and Hamas to sign the agreement.
In fact, it told Hamas that for Egypt to consider its request to establish a diplomatic presence in Gaza, it should join "a legitimate Palestinian government". Hamas had calculated that it had more time to wait for a favourable government in Cairo but was proven wrong. The increasingly unpredictable situation in Syria hastened Hamas's decision to sign the agreement. Looking ahead, the role of Egypt and what happens in Syria - effectively the "book-ends" of this agreement - will continue to have a big impact on its implementation.
Salman Shaikh is director of the Brookings Doha Center, and a former special assistant to the UN Special Envoy for the Middle East Peace Process