May 4, 2011

THE PALESTINIAN reconciliation agreement formalized Wednesday in Cairo explodes the status quo that has prevailed in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip for four years — along with the diplomatic strategy pursued by the Obama administration. Since 2007, the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority, headed by Mahmoud Abbas, has shunned the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip while sporadically negotiating with Israel. It has worked closely with the United States to train responsible security forces and develop an accountable, uncorrupt government.

In agreeing to form a new cabinet with Hamas, Mr. Abbas spelled the end of the institution-building program under Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad — which has been the most progressive and hopeful initiative in Palestinian affairs in many years. He turned his back on the prospect of U.S.-brokered peace talks with the Israeli government of Binyamin Netanyahu; instead, the new Palestinian administration will focus on winning recognition from the U.N. General Assembly.

In concert with Egypt’s new government, Mr. Abbas also has abandoned the policy of seeking to isolate Hamas or to force it to give up its dedication to terrorism and its Iranian-supplied weapons. Egypt, which brokered the Palestinian accord without consulting the United States or Israel, has indicated that it will soon open its border with Gaza, ending a de facto blockade.

The full consequences of the Palestinian deal are hard to predict because it leaves many crucial questions unanswered — and it could still fall apart. A caretaker government of “technocrats,” which is to prepare for elections in a year, has yet to be named, and it is not clear whether it will recognize Israel. If it does not, the Obama administration will be legally required to cut off $600 million in U.S. aid, and Congress may do so in any case. If Hamas prisoners now held in the West Bank are released, what has been close cooperation between Israel and the U.S.-trained Palestinian security forces could come to an abrupt end. Elections in a year could produce a new Palestinian leadership. But will a vote be fair if Hamas is not required to give up its stranglehold on Gaza?

The Obama administration had been planning a new effort to get Middle East negotiations going. Now it will need a new strategy. Its first priority should be to prevent a renewal of Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed after two years of relative calm. That will mean insisting that West Bank Palestinian security forces continue to work with Israelis to stop terrorist attacks; pressing Egypt and the new Palestinian government to require a cease-fire from Hamas; and urging Mr. Netanyahu to refrain from provocative Israeli actions.

U.S. diplomacy should meanwhile aim at reinforcing the notion that Palestinian statehood, whether or not it is endorsed by the United Nations, must be realized through negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. A unified and democratically elected Palestinian leadership is a prerequisite for creating a state — but so is a government that renounces terrorism, gives up missiles and other heavy weapons, and is prepared to fully recognize Israel. If the Palestinian accord eventually produces an administration that accepts those principles, it will be a breakthrough. More likely — and failing major changes in policy by Hamas — this will prove to be yet another false start.