Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Thursday night announced that the first Palestinian national elections in 15 years would be indefinitely delayed.
The vote would be postponed until Israel agreed to allow East Jerusalem Palestinians to participate, Abbas told a conference of senior Palestinian officials. The decision was widely interpreted to mean the elections will not be held at all in the foreseeable future.
“We have decided to delay the legislative elections until the participation of Jerusalem [residents] is ensured,” Abbas said in a statement following the meeting.
Observers, however, argued that the true rationale was the infighting in Abbas’s Fatah movement and its unpopularity, which raised the specter of defeat to rivals both inside Fatah — such as Marwan Barghouti and Mohammed Dahlan — and outside it, such as Hamas. Israel has not publicly taken a position on the question of Palestinians voting in East Jerusalem, where it claims sovereignty.
The Palestinians had been scheduled to vote for the Palestinian Legislative Council on May 22, for the first time since 2006. A presidential election was set to follow on July 31, for the first time since 2005.
Many Palestinians had hoped that the elections would allow for a new series of leaders to emerge in Palestinian politics, which is dominated by aging veterans.
Small, scattered demonstrations took place in Gaza and in Ramallah just before the decision was announced. In downtown Ramallah’s al-Manara Square, a few dozen Palestinians called for “their right to the ballot box.”
“No one will believe that this is just a delay. It also makes calling for another election during [Abbas’s] reign nearly impossible,” said former PA adviser Ghaith al-Omari, a senior research fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“The genie’s out of the bottle. It’s not like all these people are going to go back to sleep. We could easily see a revolt or an even deeper split,” al-Omari warned. “No one really knows where this might lead.”
Abbas pledged to create a “government of national unity” in the interregnum. But major Palestinian factions, including the terror groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad, boycotted Thursday’s gathering in anticipation of the decision to delay the vote.
Hamas condemned the anticipated decision to delay the vote, which it deemed a “coup.” The terror group controls the Gaza Strip, having violently ousted Fatah from Gaza in 2007. Abbas’s Fatah movement and its allies have limited self-rule in parts of the West Bank.
“The decision to delay the elections is opposed to our national consensus and popular opinion. It is a coup against our agreements,” Hamas said.
As justification, Abbas claimed Israeli authorities had not responded to a Palestinian request to conduct the elections in East Jerusalem, making the vote impossible. The Palestinians seek East Jerusalem and the Old City, captured by Israel from Jordan in 1967, as the capital of their future state, and have said they will not hold elections without it.
The Oslo Accords, a series of bilateral agreements between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, obligate Israel to allow a symbolic number of Palestinians to vote in East Jerusalem at designated post offices.
Israel never formally told the Palestinians whether it would permit the vote to take place in Jerusalem, but it has arrested Fatah candidates when they sought to hold election events in the capital.
Nonetheless, technical solutions exist for the participation of East Jerusalem Palestinians. The Palestinian elections commission noted last week that the vast majority of East Jerusalemites — around 150,000 voters — would head to ballot boxes in the West Bank on election day.
In the 2006 national legislative vote, Palestinians elected a parliament dominated by Hamas. The vote yielded a bloody civil war between the two factions, which ended with Hamas expelling Fatah from Gaza.
Abbas, who has held the presidency since 2005, is over 15 years into his four-year term. He now postpones the elections with his own Fatah movement deeply divided, its internal power struggles having been thrown into relief by the aborted vote.
Many in the PA leadership opposed heading to the ballot box from the start, seeing little benefit to holding an election, diplomatic sources said.
The United States was lukewarm on the vote as well, fearful that a divided Fatah could lead to a Hamas parliamentary victory similar to its 2006 landslide.
At the start, Ramallah seemed to believe it could control the results of the vote. But Palestinian politics shook dramatically after enormously popular Palestinian security prisoner Marwan Barghouti backed his own slate of candidates mere hours before the deadline.
Convicted by an Israeli court of direct involvement in five murders during the Second Intifada, Barghouti, a senior Fatah member, is currently serving five life sentences. Many Palestinians still view him as a steadfast symbol of resistance — a sharp contrast to the unpopular Abbas, whom many Palestinians believe is corrupt.
Senior officials in Ramallah made several attempts to keep Barghouti and his ally Nasser al-Kidwa from challenging Abbas by putting together a rival slate in the parliamentary vote. Senior Abbas advisor Hussein al-Sheikh paid visits to Barghouti in prison, reportedly in an attempt to dissuade him.
“If Barghouti were elected, these guys would be out,” a diplomatic source told The Times of Israel earlier this week, referring to Abbas’s inner circle.
The threat emanating from Barghouti sent the elections into a tailspin, as senior officials in Abbas’s inner circle began to sense a real possibility of defeat. With most in the Palestinian president’s inner circle already opposed to the vote, the pressure to wriggle out of the impending election grew.
Abbas defended his decision to postpone the elections as a patriotic stance — anything else, he said, would entail abandoning Jerusalem.
“Now, Israel is saying, ‘this isn’t yours, no matter what.’ What happened in 1996, 2005 and 2006, is one thing, and now is totally different,” Abbas said, referring to previous Palestinian elections.
Over the past week, Palestinian officials launched a campaign to show their public that they were making every possible effort to force Israel to allow an East Jerusalem vote. Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki shuttled between European capitals to press them on the matter.
But it is unclear how much the Palestinian public — most of whom, a recent survey showed, support holding the elections on time — believe their leaders’ justification.
Anticipation for the vote had been building across the West Bank and Gaza for months. Thirty-six lists were prepared to run in the parliamentary elections, and the campaign was set to officially begin this Friday.
Analysts warn that Abbas could face popular opposition following the vote’s delay.
“There could be popular protest, given that most of the lists in the elections oppose delaying the vote,” allowed Ramallah-based analyst Jihad Harb.
Hamas, meanwhile, could stand to gain in popularity. The terror group has sought to portray itself as the defender of Palestinian democracy in the face of attempts to delay the elections.
“Hamas is sitting back and enjoying the show with popcorn. They benefit from anything that shows that Fatah is weak. Since their goal is to lead the Palestinian national movement once Fatah goes, they’d be the last man standing,” al-Omari said.