Reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas is vital if an independent Palestinian state is to ever become a reality.
A deal between Fatah and Hamas benefits everyone
The Israeli response to the unity agreement between Palestinian factions was predictably irritating. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu derided the agreement in stark terms, saying that the Palestinian Authority had a choice of either peace with Israel or peace with Hamas. His spokesperson reduced this bumper sticker rejection of Palestinian unity even further to "reconciliation or peace".
What is galling is the implicit assumption that peace with Israel's government is a real possibility that the Palestinians have somehow rejected. In reality, the Netanyahu government has shown no interest in moving toward peace - unless it is on terms that they dictate.
While feigning disappointment, Mr Netanyahu must privately be delighted. The pressure he had been under to deliver "concessions" to the Palestinians in his speech to the US Congress later this month has been relieved. He can revert to his old form, expressing a vague desire for peace while warning that there is no viable Palestinian partner in peace.
From one point of view, Mr Netanyahu will feel free to proceed with settlement construction, raids in the West Bank, confrontations with Gaza and home demolitions in Jerusalem. His allies in Congress will do the rest by denouncing Palestinian reconciliation and claiming there is no choice but to suspend US assistance to the Palestinian Authority.
Nevertheless, what Fatah and Hamas have achieved in this accord is important and should be supported. But two cautionary notes are in order. First, the two sides have merely announced an engagement - the wedding is scheduled for down the road and the marriage will be fragile with outside forces working hard to drive a wedge between the two parties. Second, the US may be one of these home-wreckers (as it has been in the past) if the Obama administration puts too much pressure on the Palestinians or supports Congressional efforts to deny them aid.
Because Palestine remains a captive nation, it is not the sole master of its fate. Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has done a brilliant job of reorganising the PA's ministries and security forces and putting its financial house in order. But Gaza remains under a near total blockade, although Egypt plans to reopen the Rafah border crossing; Jerusalem and its environs, once the Palestinian religious, cultural, educational, economic and social hub, have been severed from the rest of the West Bank; and the West Bank as a whole has been separated into cantons with no access to the outside world.
As a result no sustainable economy can develop, leaving Palestinians dependent on Israel and foreign aid. Given the situation, the suggestion that Palestinians must choose reconciliation or peace, when peace has not been an option, is nothing more than a taunt.
What has been clear since the 2006 elections is that the Palestinian polity is in disarray - with everyone behaving badly. The US and Israel did not accept the outcome of that election although the Bush administration had pushed for the poll. Israel took repressive measures, at one point holding in detention without charge the majority of the newly elected Hamas legislature. Aid was cut and the US began to press Fatah, the losing side, to seek a confrontation.
Hamas also behaved foolishly. Instead of assuming the role of a responsible government and ignoring the many provocations, it continued its violent behaviour, resorted to terror tactics and picked fights that it could not win. The results were disastrous and for three years the Palestinians have been not only weak and occupied, but increasingly divided with competing "governments" in two captive territories.
The Palestinians need unity and, whether they know it or not, the US and the Israelis need the Palestinians to be unified. Palestinian reconciliation is a precondition to any peace agreement and to stability in the region. Although I deplore Hamas's past behaviour and deplore its politics, it is still a real part of the Palestinian polity. The Bush administration policy to aggravate the internal Palestinian divide only created more bitterness and threatened to create a permanent rupture. That would only benefit a long-term Israeli occupation and continued domination of a captive Palestinian people.
This effort at reconciliation may provide Palestinians an opportunity to get their house in order and to move Hamas in a more constructive direction. Those in Israel and in the US Congress who are hyperventilating over Hamas's charter ought to read Likud's and some of the religious pronouncements of its allies in Israel's Shas party.
Hamas's behaviour is a key concern, and this reconciliation may prove to be the best way to guarantee that Hamas will act responsibly. If the new government of technocrats is allowed to function and to continue on the path laid out by Mr Fayyad; if Hamas and Fatah can work out operations in their respective areas; if elections can be held later this year, Palestinians will have an even stronger position to claim statehood.
The bottom line is that Palestinians should not be asked to choose between reconciliation or peace. They need both. This accord advances reconciliation, and now the US and Israel must advance peace.
In the short term, if the US Congress suspends aid, Arab states and others should step up to sustain the PA as it moves towards elections and the UN vote on an independent Palestinian state expected in the fall.
None of this, of course, will by itself result in a state. But a democratic and unified Palestinian Authority would make a stronger moral and legal case for recognition than Palestinians can make if they are divided entities of questionable legitimacy. Is this why Israel is so hostile to the agreement?
James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute