The attempt by Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood man, to bring together the leaders of the Palestinian Authority, headed by Mahmoud Abbas, with the heads of Hamas, was another step in the Egyptian effort to restore itself to a position of regional leadership and to cement the new regime's status as the go-to mediator in intra-Arab conflicts. This effort stems from the Egyptian objective — in place since the Muslim Brotherhood replaced the military rule of the generals — to contribute to the fight against Israel in any way possible and to force Israel to revoke its peace treaty with Egypt, while still appearing to contribute to peace and stability in the region (to avoid losing American financial and military aid).
The latest Egyptian moves go hand in hand with a number of processes currently underway in the Palestinian world: the increase in "soft" terrorism in Judea and Samaria; the sense of disappointment among the Palestinian masses over failing to leverage the recent U.N. statehood recognition; and the collapse of Hamas' military leadership in Gaza, due to, among other things, Israel's November campaign, Operation Pillar of Defense.
The area of Judea and Samaria has seen a host of "soft" disturbances in recent weeks: Rock throwing is becoming ever more prevalent and acts of terror perpetrated by individuals or small groups (a fake gun recovered in Hebron, an ax attack in Samaria, stabbing attempts, clashes between Jewish settlers and Palestinians, and more) are on the rise. All these incidents occur with the implicit, and sometimes explicit, approval of the Palestinian Authority. The Palestinian Authority's complete failure to take any measures to prevent such terrorism only reinforces the sense that this "soft escalation" is well orchestrated. Abbas publicly opposes violence, but he won't oppose a popular uprising by the masses, even if he does say that he doesn't want another armed intifada. The legitimacy of his rule is in doubt, since his presidential term ended in 2010 and no elections are planned for the foreseeable future.
Abbas' status is also shaky on the ground, much like the status of his parent organizations Fatah and the Palestine Liberation Organization. These groups are constantly losing influence in the face of the growing influence of Hamas. For a long while now, the Arabs of the West Bank have begun to view Hamas as a viable alternative, though they are still wary. In light of his current situation, it stands to reason that Abbas' aversion to another round of violence stems from his fear that Hamas would take advantage of the violence to topple the Palestinian Authority and assume power in the West Bank as well.
For its part, Hamas lacks unified leadership and a central idea to draw the masses. The Palestinian public is generally not comprised of radical Islamists, and they put their faith in Hamas in the 2006 elections in the hope of a better future, which never materialized. Hamas' leadership situation also isn't great, because instead of relying on an agreed upon central leadership, there is a random collection of local or familial leaders.
In the meeting between the heads of the two rival Palestinian factions in Cairo on Wednesday, the PLO likely demanded, as it has for years, that Hamas recognize that the resolution adopted at the Arab League summit held in Rabat in 1974, which designated the PLO as the "sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people," join the Palestinian National Council (where the PLO enjoys a clear advantage), accept the Oslo Accords and halt all armed resistance. The likelihood that Hamas would accept these terms is close to zero. Hamas haven't accepted them in the past, and there is no chance they will accept them now, when they are in a stronger position than their rivals (the PLO and the PA), and Hamas' "strong stance" during Operation Pillar of Defense is still fresh in the collective Palestinian memory.
Hamas, for its part, likely demanded one of two things as a jumping off point for reconciliation talks: A violent, armed intifada against Israel, which would shake up the West Bank and cement a new Palestinian hierarchy, or alternately, to nominate Khaled Mashaal, Hamas designated leader, as the presidential candidate to vie for Abbas' seat in the Palestinian Authority presidential election. Should he win, his presidency would render all the PLO's demands entirely obsolete.
The official Palestinian position, including the stance of both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, is not yet focused on support for a third, violent intifada. However, drawing Israel into a violent campaign at home would facilitate the Arab (with Egypt at the helm) efforts to portray Israel to the Americans as the aggressors and to divert Israel's focus from attacking Iran. It would also serve as a worthy excuse for an ad hoc alliance between Hamas and the PLO.
Professor Alexander Bligh is a lecturer at the Department of Israel and Middle East Studies at Ariel University and director of the university's Middle East Research Center.