One of the principal obstacles to forward movement on an agreement in the Middle East is the absence of unity on the Palestinian side of the table.
The quarrel between Fatah, whose strength lies primarily in the West Bank, and Hamas, whose base is in Gaza, makes it easy for the Israelis to say -- sincerely or hypocritically -- that they are ready to talk, but the Palestinians are too divided to be viable interlocutors in a quest for peace. The goal, set out by President George W. Bush and affirmed by President Barack Obama, is two states, Israel and Palestine, living in peace and recognized by their neighbors in the Middle East.
The latest skirmish in the Hamas-Fatah squabble is the announcement by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas scheduling Palestinian elections for Jan. 24. Hamas replied that Mr. Abbas could schedule whatever he liked, but that it would boycott the elections.
Hamas' position comes against a backdrop of unsuccessful efforts by the Egyptians to make peace between the two factions. Egypt is, in principle, in a strong position to put pressure on Hamas, given that it has a common border with Gaza. On the other hand, Hamas' heritage of birth within the Muslim Brotherhood makes it almost automatic that some suspicion will reign between it and the Egyptians.
So far, U.S. special envoy George J. Mitchell has found little traction with either the Israelis or the Palestinians in trying to restart the Middle East peace process. On the Israeli side, his problem lies largely with the right-wing government headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu which, so far, has gotten away with stiffing Mr. Obama by expanding settlements in the West Bank. The settler population has now grown to about 300,000 and new construction is under way.
On the Palestinian side, Mr. Mitchell's efforts have stumbled on the fact that the United States openly supports Fatah, providing training and equipment to Palestinian security forces under its authority. On the Hamas side, Mr. Mitchell has had no known contact with its leaders, even though the 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza will have to be at the table for any agreement that is negotiated.
In the meantime the other Arab states sit back and watch, seeing nothing to gain by giving Israel anything or even helping Mr. Mitchell and the Americans with the Palestinians, given the U.S. unwillingness to engage with Hamas.
While the Obama administration rhetoric on achieving Middle East peace is more mellifluous than that of its predecessor, its actions show no new ability to reach that goal.