JERUSALEM — Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Thursday announced his intention to indefinitely postpone what would have been the first Palestinian elections in almost a generation amid a dispute with Israel over voting in East Jerusalem and sagging poll numbers for Abbas’s own ruling faction.
The fast-approaching election, with separate votes for parliament and president scheduled for May and June, would have given Palestinians their first chance to elect their leaders since 2006. That year’s election shocked the region when the militant group Hamas was elected to govern the Gaza Strip, leading to a blockade by Israel and an enduring schism in Palestinian politics.
Abbas, 85, leader of the rival Fatah party, has been in power for 16 years.
Speaking before a meeting of Palestinian leaders from the West Bank and Gaza, Abbas laid the blame for the setback squarely on Israel, accusing it of stonewalling efforts to let thousands of Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem cast their ballots.
“We will not hold elections without Jerusalem,” Abbas said. “As soon as Israel agrees, we’ll hold the election within a week.”
Israeli officials have said that the Palestinian Authority alone has responsibility for holding, or postponing, elections, and accused Abbas of using Israel as a pretext to cancel a vote he might lose.
“I think this is a handy excuse, from what my Palestinian friends tell me,” said Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Fleur Hassan-Nahoum.
Israeli and Palestinian security were on alert Thursday in case the election delay sparked clashes in Jerusalem or in the West Bank. Tensions are already high after protests last week at Jerusalem’s Old City in which Palestinian youths clashed with police and, on one occasion, with right-wing Jewish demonstrators chanting “Death to Arabs.”
Israeli communities near Gaza were told to brace for possible rocket fire from the enclave.
Israelis and Palestinians both claim Jerusalem as their rightful capital. Israel, which gained control of the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem in 1967 and unilaterally annexed them in 1980, is vigilant against the Palestinian Authority operating in any way within the city, even though Palestinians there are eligible to vote in West Bank elections as well as Jerusalem municipal elections.
In previous elections, the two sides reached an accord allowing East Jerusalemites to vote in Israeli post offices. This time, Palestinian official said a similar request, and other attempts to facilitate voting, went unanswered. Attempts by Palestinian candidates to campaign in East Jerusalem were also blocked, according to election analysts, as were attempts by the Palestinian’s independent election commission to hold meetings in the neighborhoods.
One Israeli official said a voting agreement could have been reached, but that Palestinians did not make a serious attempt to engage them.
“In [two previous] elections, ways were found that allowed them to say Palestinians were voting in East Jerusalem and Israel to say that Jerusalem remained united under Israeli sovereignty and that the Palestinian Authority has no authority in the city,” said the official, who asked not to be identified to speak candidly. “This time, there was no discussion of different modalities at all. No serious attempt was made.”
Abbas, who has been under pressure to hold elections by the European governments that are major funders of the Palestinian Authority, announced the scheduled vote in January, launching a season of elector fervor in the territories. More than 95 percent of eligible adults have since registered to vote, and 36 parliamentary slates announced intentions to run, triple the number of the last election.
But enthusiasm was well tempered by widespread skepticism that the vote would actually come off. Just 39 percent of Palestinians thought they would occur on schedule, according to one poll, while 44 percent said they expected them to be postponed.
The U.S. Embassy declined to comment on the decision to delay the elections.
“As we’ve always said, the exercise of democratic elections is a matter for the Palestinians to determine,” said a U.S. government official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to comment.
Predictions that the vote would be postponed had grown louder in recent weeks as the election seemed to be slipping away from Abbas and his circle.
Several members of his Fatah party formed their own slates of candidates, in some cases outpolling Abbas’s faction. Among them was Marwan Barghouti, a former Palestinian leader convicted of terrorism charges who, joining with another Fatah breakaway, mounted a robust electoral challenge from an Israeli prison cell.
Hamas, too, seemed poised to gain seats in the legislative council.
“That was all a bit embarrassing for the official Fatah list,” said Ghassan Khatib, a Ramallah-based pollster and former Palestinian Authority official. “I think there’s going to be a great deal of disappointment [at the vote’s postponement] but not a great deal of surprise.”
Hamas rejected the election delay, accusing Abbas of “succumbing to the Israeli occupation’s veto” in East Jerusalem, and called for Palestinian parties to find ways to defy Israel.
“No Palestinian would accept excluding Jerusalem from the Palestinian vote,” Hamas said in a statement. “The issue that should be addressed is how to impose our will and hold the elections in Jerusalem.”
— — –
Balousha reported from Gaza.