Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has all but cancelled the first elections to be held in the occupied Palestinian territories since 2006, blaming Israel for not allowing the polls to include East Jerusalem.
The elections were due to take place in late-May but for now, Abbas announced only an open-ended delay, saying only that he would hold the elections “within a week” if Israel allowed campaigning and voting in East Jerusalem to take place for the Palestinian Legislative Council.
“Facing this difficult situation, we decided to postpone the date of holding legislative elections until the participation of Jerusalem and its people is guaranteed,” Abbas said in a late-night speech.
But few expect the delay to be short, since Israel is unlikely to grant that permission, and because Abbas’s Fatah party was clearly trailing rival Hamas in opinion polls, signalling a repeat of the 2006 elections, when the Islamist group trounced the more moderate and secular Fatah. Abbas is head of the Palestinian Authority, the governing body in the West Bank, while Hamas runs the Gaza strip.
The cancellation was widely expected, and is seen as particularly convenient for Abbas. Infighting within Fatah has produced several popular rivals vying to replace the 85-year-old leader, viewed by the overwhelmingly young Palestinian population as corrupt and ineffective.
The decision will disappoint young Palestinians, who have been repeatedly denied a chance to choose a new leadership, and will be quietly welcomed by the US and Israel, which viewed the elections as a chance for Hamas to further consolidate power.
The issue of voting in East Jerusalem is also seen by many as a fig leaf to spare Abbas the humiliation of an electoral loss for Fatah, the preferred interlocutor for the west and Israel on the question of Palestinian statehood.
“Do I think that that’s a reason for cancelling the election? No, I think that he cancelled the elections because he wasn’t confident with what the outcome was going to be,” said Diana Buttu, a Palestinian lawyer who advised Abbas in negotiations with Israel until 2005. “But at the same time, it is important that Palestinians be allowed to vote in East Jerusalem, that and that Palestinians be allowed to campaign freely.”
Israel annexed East Jerusalem after winning the 1967 war and views the city as its undivided capital. Allowing Palestinian elections in East Jerusalem would weaken this claim. “Jerusalem will not be compromised, and our people in Jerusalem will not give up their right to exercise their democratic rights,” said Abbas, according to Reuters.
The EU-backed elections had been designed to renew a democratic mandate for the increasingly authoritarian Abbas, who won a four-year term as president in 2005, in the hopes of positioning him for a round of peace talks being considered by the Biden administration.
Israeli officials have said in the past week that they worry that the delay could lead to renewed conflict with Hamas, considered terrorists by the Jewish state, the EU and the US.
Hamas immediately denounced the delay as a “coup.” The group’s surprise victory in the 2006 elections led to months of conflict with Fatah — including a shortlived civil war that saw Hamas take control of the Gaza Strip, triggering an Israeli blockade that continues to this day.