The Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's announcement yesterday that he will meet the Hamas leader, Khaled Meshaal, in Cairo next week follows yet another round of speculation that the four-year-old schism between the factions is nearing its end.
That has been partly driven by the independent Palestinian Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad, who has said he would stand down from his post if – because of Hamas objections – he was the obstacle to reconciliation between the two sides. It was also driven by the claim of a senior Fatah official, Azzam Ahmed, that the two factions had agreed to elections in May 2012 and an interim government before that – probably without Mr Fayyad at its helm. But such predictions, including by Mr Ahmed, have been made before. Some Palestinian officials are sceptical about whether the factions have made as much progress as Mr Ahmed implied this week.
Palestinian elections have been promised before without being held. And Mr Fayyad is mainly trying to see off attempts to cast him in the undeserved role of scapegoat for the lack of progress in inter-faction talks since a theoretical agreement in May this year. Mr Fayyad, and some officials around Mr Abbas, have told diplomats that the Prime Minister is not about to resign.
The two factions joined in a unity government in 2007 after Hamas won the most seats in elections in the Palestinian Territories a year earlier, but the coalition soon collapsed amid bitter fighting. Hamas seized control of Gaza, effectively splitting the territories into separately governed entities, with the West Bank controlled by Fatah and Mr Abbas.
There are good reasons why further reconciliation might be tempting now. For Hamas, another strong election showing would give it new political leverage in the West Bank. If the Muslim Brotherhood do well in the coming Egyptian elections without inviting international ostracism, it will be more difficult to argue that a boycott of the Palestinian Authority is justified by the Islamist Hamas having an influence in it, particularly if Mr Meshal reinvents Hamas as the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood in putative May elections.
Reunification between the factions would probably please Egypt, which Mr Meshal would surely like to do, given how uncomfortable his Syrian base has become. Meanwhile, Mr Abbas has little to show for keeping his distance from Hamas. Indeed, he has been severely punished – in withheld funds – by Israel and the US Congress for making a diplomatic bid in September for recognition at the UN, which Hamas opposed.
Mr Fayyad's main misfortune is that as an independent he belongs to neither Hamas or Fatah. And as long as the money from the US and Israel has dried up, it makes it more difficult for Mr Abbas to argue to Mr Fayyad's enemies and Fatah rivals that the Prime Minister is keeping the PA afloat.
Mr Abbas is said to have predicted that Hamas will not reconcile, at least until Egypt's elections are over. He may be more enthusiastic about a deal than he is letting on to Western governments. But it remains a big step, all the more so if Mr Fayyad were to be sacrificed. It would risk international ostracism, if not by Europe, at least by the US and Israel. It isn't certain that Hamas would give up its de facto control of Gaza – or Fatah of the West Bank – whatever the result of any elections. There is a rumbling in favour of reconciliation, but remarriage was always going to be more difficult than divorce.