JERUSALEM – When the Palestinian Authority called general elections in January, many Palestinians hoped the vote – the first in the Occupied Territories since 2006 – would revive Palestinian discourse, revive the independence movement and end a 14-year split between Palestinian leaders in the occupied West Bank and Gaza.
However, those hopes were dashed on Thursday evening when Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas announced that the May 22 vote would be postponed indefinitely.
The news added to an unresolved political dynamic in the Occupied Territories and the State of Israel, where both Israeli and Palestinian societies remain plagued by political stalemate and division, where tensions in Jerusalem and Gaza are mounting and a return to peace negotiations appears less likely than ever.
The official reason for the postponement was the Israeli government’s refusal to confirm that it would allow a vote in East Jerusalem, which was annexed to Israel after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. East Jerusalem is mainly home to Palestinians who vote in elections to the Palestinian Authority, a semi-autonomous institution that has partial jurisdiction in other parts of the Occupied Territories.
“We have decided to postpone the parliamentary elections until the participation of Jerusalem and its people is guaranteed,” Abbas said in a speech in Ramallah. “We are not giving up Jerusalem.”
But the postponement also served another purpose: Mr Abbas feared that his party, Fatah, could lose ground in the upcoming elections to two factions of Fatah, according to a Palestinian official and a Western diplomat instructed by the Palestinian leadership.
Meanwhile, Israeli officials were concerned that the elections would lead to a bigger role in the Palestinian leadership of Hamas, the militant Islamist group that removed control of Gaza from Mr Abbas in 2007 and which Israel has never recognized.
“It is a big mistake to vote in these elections,” said Kamil Abu Rokon, an Israeli general who oversaw the administrative aspects of the occupation until earlier this month just before he left his post. “My recommendation is not to work together.”
Analysts also said Israeli leaders are happy to keep their Palestinian counterparts divided as it undermines the Palestinians’ ability to reach a final status agreement with Israel as a unitary bloc.
Hamas condemned Abbas’s decision, describing it as a “coup” that lacked popular support.
The development is taking place in a volatile phase in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and the State of Israel. Israeli politics is also at an impasse following an election in March – Israel’s fourth in two years – in which both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his opponents failed to gain a working majority.
The situation in Jerusalem is tense after right-wing Jewish supremacists marched last week and sang “Death to the Arabs”. Attacks on both Palestinians and Jews and the now-repealed provocative Israeli decision to close a central square in East Jerusalem where Palestinians like to gather this month of Ramadan.
These riots broke months of relative calm in Gaza, where militants fired dozens of rockets at Israel last weekend to protest the situation in Jerusalem.
The city is at the center of Mr Abbas’ pretext to postpone elections.
Under the interim agreements signed in the 1990s between Israeli and Palestinian leaders known as the Oslo Accords, the Israeli government is required to allow Palestinian elections in East Jerusalem.
But Israel neither blocked the elections nor agreed to allow them. The Israeli government has made no decision in any way, an Israeli official confirmed, despite requests from the Palestinian leadership. Israeli police arrested several representatives of Palestinian parties who were trying to fight in the city.
Palestinian officials said continuing an election without East Jerusalem would mean surrendering Palestinian claims to the city and its holy Islamic sites, including the Aqsa Mosque.
“It is not that we are trying to avoid elections,” said Ziad Abu Amr, deputy prime minister of the Palestinian Authority and advisor to Abbas. “Jerusalem cannot be left or left. You cannot surrender to the fait accompli Israel is trying to impose on Jerusalem. “
However, insiders said Mr. Abbas had an underlying motive for a postponement.
Abbas’s party, Fatah, has long been the engine of the Palestinian national movement and is now facing unprecedented challenges, not only from long-time rival Hamas, but also from ex-Fatah grandees, whose campaigns undermined support for their former party .
If there were elections, Fatah supporters would be forced to choose from three factions affiliated with Fatah – the official party; a faction led by exiled former security chief Muhammad Dahlan; and a second breakaway faction led by Nasser al-Kidwa, a former United Nations envoy, and Marwan Barghouti, a popular militant who is serving several life sentences in an Israeli prison for five murders.
In the latest poll, the Abbas faction still prevailed with around a quarter of the vote. However, the overall majority was predicted to lag far behind the overall majority, as almost as many voters said they would vote for rival Fatah groups. Hamas polled less than nine percent.
No Palestinian official this week would publicly admit that these factors influenced the thinking of Mr. Abbas. On condition of anonymity, a Palestinian official and a Palestinian-instructed Western diplomat said he feared losing control of his former allies.
And after Mr Kidwa and Mr Barghouti broke up with Mr Abbas in March, a senior Palestinian official said in an interview with the New York Times that the move would jeopardize the elections because it could undermine Fatah.
“The situation of Fatah must be strong, it must lead the Palestine Liberation Organization and the national project,” said Wassel Abu Yousef, member of the PLO Executive Committee, the official representative of the Palestinian people. “If the national project is damaged, there will be heavy and powerful voices in favor of postponing the elections.”
Some Palestinians hit the shift with a shrug. Many felt that the elections did not take place in a particularly free environment, while some always suspected that they would be canceled. Others felt that choosing a Palestinian parliament would have little impact on the biggest problem in their lives: the Israeli occupation.
Elections suggest that “there is a sovereign entity in which people participate in a democratic process,” said Yara Hawari, senior analyst at Al Shabaka, a Palestinian research group. “But you cannot have full democracy under occupation.”
Many Palestinians, however, were angry that they were deprived of the rare opportunity to elect their representatives. Masses of protesters, many too young to vote in the last Palestinian election, demonstrated against the decision in both the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
“People are calling for the ballot box,” they sang.
Muhammad Shehada, a 28-year-old unemployed civil engineer from Gaza City, described the decision as a “great disappointment”. The situation in Jerusalem was not a reason to call off the elections. He said, “The occupation controls Jerusalem whether the elections are held or not.”
The lack of elections also raises the specter of intra-Palestinian violence as various factions will now no longer have a peaceful forum to voice their grievances and express their frustrations, said Mkhaimar Abusada, a political scientist at Al Azhar University in Gaza City.
“Many Palestinians hoped that elections would resolve tension and friction between the factions,” said Dr. Abusada. But the election delay, he said, “will make the Palestinians fight each other.”
Iyad Abuhweila reported from Gaza City and Irit Pazner Garshowitz from Jerusalem.