Pundits are painting news of Gilad Schalit's dramatic release as a blow to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who watched from the sidelines, and a win for the rival Hamas faction, which negotiated the release of more than 1,000 Palestinians in exchange for just one captured soldier.
But rather than stoking inter-Palestinian rivalries, Schalit's freedom could pave the road for an elusive unity deal between Hamas and Abbas's Fatah faction, and ultimately force Washington to reconsider its diplomacy and aid package to a Palestinian government constituted in part by an unrepentant terrorist group.
The man to watch is Mazen Sinokrot, the Palestinian Authority (PA) minister of economy from 2005 to 2006, and an ideological chameleon. Sinokrot appeals to secular and moderate forces because he is the brain behind the success of Sinokrot Global Group, an economic juggernaut operating in the West Bank and Gaza, working with both Palestinians and Israelis.
But Sinokrot also appeals to rejectionists and jihadists because Israel arrested him in 1998 for operating Beit al-Mal, an investment company that the U.S. Treasury designated in 2001 for financing Hamas.
Though Sinokrot is not a Hamas member, the terrorist group's leaders have indicated they would be satisfied if he were named prime minister.
Abbas has reportedly indicated that Sinokrot would work for him, too.
Whether the factions can publicly settle on a government under Sinokrot remains to be seen.
In the meantime, Hamas and Fatah can agree on what they don't want: current Palestinian Authority prime minister Salaam Fayyad. Abbas and Fayyad are barely on speaking terms, owing to a long-standing feud over efforts to make the Palestinian Authority more transparent and accountable – which Fayyad wants, and Abbas doesn't. Hamas dislikes Fayyad simply because he's not committed to the destruction of Israel.
Distaste for Fayyad, along with antipathy for Israel, may be the only two areas of common ground for these factions in recent years. Indeed, Hamas and Fatah have technically been in a state of war since they failed to form a government after the 2006 elections, in which Hamas routed Fatah. The following year, Hamas took the Gaza Strip in a brutal civil war, leading to a geographic and political division that has endured.
Hamas remains the de facto authority in Gaza, while the Fatah-backed PA controls the West Bank.
But in May, out of the blue, the two sides announced plans to join hands ahead of Abbas' unilateral declaration of independence at the UN in September.
However, the two sides have since failed to agree on the make-up of a technocratic government that would preside over a transition to new elections that could lead to a reunification of the West Bank and Gaza.
Fatah's calculus has been complicated by the fact that Washington and many European states view Hamas as a terrorist organization. A marriage between the factions, Washington has warned, would trigger US sanctions, along with punitive measures from a host of other international donor countries.
Some European countries expressed specific concerns about a Palestinian unity government, because it would become responsible for Schalit, whom Hamas barred international observers from visiting, constituting a clear violation of international law.
But now, in the eyes of some Western nations, unloading Shalit now makes Hamas less toxic. Last week, the WAFA news agency reported that Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal would meet Abbas emissary Azzam al- Ahmed in Cairo.
Al-Ahmed confirmed that many Western countries had lobbied Abbas against reconciling with Hamas because of Schalit, and noted that with the soldier's release, that was no longer an issue.
In addition, the ideological boundaries of the two largest Palestinian factions continue to blur. An Israeli mediator told Maan News Agency last week that Hamas has become more pragmatic, while Fatah Central Committee member Tawfik Tirawi said recently that Fatah has never abandoned armed struggle against Israel. Could it be that Hamas and Fatah are beginning to find common ground?
While the Schalit prisoner swap may pave the way toward a Palestinian unity government, significant differences still remain. Much of this hinges of Abbas, who is gambling with the security of the West Bank and economic aid from the US and Europe by pushing for political recognition at the United Nations. A unity government, inasmuch as it supports the notion of a unified Palestinian people, could help Abbas make a stronger case for statehood at the United Nations.
Shalit's long-awaited release may yet make matters worse between Hamas and Fatah. But for now, it provides a window for unity that could complicate US policy in a region where there are already complications aplenty.
The writer is vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and author of Hamas vs Fatah: The Struggle for Palestine (Palgrave Macmillan).