As Palestinians plan vote, Jerusalem looms as possible obstacle — or pretext

Israel demands ballots only in West Bank and Gaza, but hoped-for capital is a red line for the PA, which could use the issue as an excuse to halt the first PA election in 15 years

A Palestinian walks past a section of Israel's security barrier covered with campaign posters for the upcoming Palestinian parliamentary election in the West Bank village of A-Ram, in the outskirts of Jerusalem, January 23, 2006. (AP/ Oded Balilty)
A Palestinian walks past a section of Israel's security barrier covered with campaign posters for the upcoming Palestinian parliamentary election in the West Bank village of A-Ram, in the outskirts of Jerusalem, January 23, 2006. (AP/ Oded Balilty)

In 2005, Palestinian elections official Ziad Bakri was detained by the Israel Police while registering East Jerusalem Palestinians to vote.

“They detained a whole group of us as we took down names and took us off to be interrogated,” said Bakri, who works in the Jerusalem branch of the Palestinian Central Elections Committee. “We don’t register voters in Jerusalem anymore. Our system is now to have them come to us.”

As Palestinians inch toward the possibility of their first elections in 15 years, Jerusalem is likely to emerge as either a flashpoint or a pretext for inaction — depending on whom you ask. The city’s potent symbolism has created a long list of rules and face-saving demands that must be navigated if the vote is to come to fruition.

The Palestinians insist that an election cannot happen if their hoped-for future capital is not included.

“Without Jerusalem, there will be no elections,” Fatah Central Committee member Azzam al-Ahmad declared in an interview in his Ramallah office.

But Israel, which annexed East Jerusalem in 1980, says Palestinian Authority activity there violates agreements between the two sides.

And so, to find the Jerusalem branch of the Palestinian Central Elections Committee, one has to leave the capital and drive north to a-Ram, a Palestinian town on a road that snakes towards Ramallah.

“It is a little absurd, but those are the conditions we work under,” Bakri said.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas shows his ink-stained finger after casting his vote during local elections at a polling station in the West Bank city of Ramallah, October 20, 2012. (AP/Majdi Mohammed/File)

PA President Mahmoud Abbas announced in mid-January that Palestinians would be returning to the polls. He issued an electoral decree setting three rounds of elections, with the first — legislative elections — scheduled for May 22. The statement was greeted with heavy skepticism, as numerous electoral promises have fallen through before.

Hamas’s victory in the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections led to a split between Fatah and the Islamist terror group. The two rival Palestinian movements fought a bloody struggle for supremacy in Gaza, ending in the Fatah leadership’s expulsion to the West Bank.

The divide between Fatah and Hamas has only widened in the intervening years. While Palestinian politicians regularly praise the idea of national unity, several agreements between the two sides to reconcile and hold new elections have failed.

Optimism has slowly been growing in diplomatic circles, however, that this time would be different — that after 15 years, the Palestinians might actually head to the ballot box.

Palestinians demonstrate in front of the High Court in the West Bank city of Ramallah on September 21, 2016, calling on authorities not to postpone the local elections. (AFP/ABBAS MOMANI)

But Palestinian officials have charged that Israel might move to block a Palestinian vote. As in previous election pushes, Palestinian officials have said East Jerusalem participation is a must for the elections to go forward.

“The greatest concern over the elections is from Israel — that Israel will prevent elections in Jerusalem or in Area C, or that Israel will put a mass lockdown on the West Bank and prevent Palestinians from voting,” senior Palestine Liberation Organization official Ahmad Majdalani told The Times of Israel in late January.

Several Israeli government bodies, including the Prime Minister’s Office, the Defense Ministry, and the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, did not respond to requests for comment about preparations for Palestinian elections.

Around 350,000 Palestinians live in East Jerusalem. Under Israeli law, they are considered permanent residents, not Israeli citizens, and they cannot vote in Israeli national elections. While Israel has offered citizenship to them on paper, East Jerusalemites face enormous practical hurdles to actually claiming it; others refuse citizenship on principle.

But Israel sees allowing them to vote in Palestinian national elections as undermining its claim to the whole city.

“The challenge is not one of security, it’s political. Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. Politically, symbolically, there cannot be elections for any other national entity there. The security dimension is secondary,” said retired brigadier general Yaakov Amidror, a hawkish former national security adviser.

Palestinian officials also say their insistence on the right to vote in Jerusalem is not simply about the ballot box.

“Jerusalem is not a technical question, Jerusalem is a symbolic question,” Majdalani said.

Israel is technically committed to allowing the Palestinians to hold elections in Jerusalem, according to the 1995 Oslo Accords.

The accords, a series of bilateral agreements between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, specify that East Jerusalem Palestinians can vote at any of six polling stations scattered through the eastern part of the capital.

“We hope for the same system under which [East Jerusalem] Palestinians participated in 2006 and in 1996,” al-Ahmad said.

Fatah’s official Azzam al-Ahmad, left, waits for a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and representatives of Palestinian groups and movements in Moscow, Russia, February 12, 2019. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin, Pool)

Israelis point out that the accords also require that all parties in Palestinian elections recognize Israel and renounce violence. Hamas is avowedly committed to Israel’s violent destruction.

“It was a mistake by [Israeli prime minister Ariel] Sharon,” Amidror said of the decision to allow Hamas to participate in the January 2006 elections, adding later: “I have no idea what he was thinking.”

Palestinian elections in East Jerusalem would entail participation by both Fatah and Hamas in the capital. In 2006, Israel initially resisted the idea, which it viewed as a violation of its sovereignty in Jerusalem.

But after “unrelenting American pressure,” acting prime minister Ehud Olmert agreed to allow the elections to go forward in East Jerusalem, said former Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom.

“At the time, the United States and the Republican Party were focused on democratization. There was a whole wave of elections in the region, in Iraq for example, and Palestinian elections fit that mold,” said Shalom, who resigned from his position in Olmert’s government in January 2006.

Olmert’s predecessor Sharon fell into a coma after a sudden stroke in early 2006. The newly appointed acting prime minister faced elections in March, leaving him in a weak position and facing a tough challenger to his right — future prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“This was a week and a half after Olmert entered office — one of his first decisions. He thought it would be terrible to clash with the Americans as an acting prime minister, on the eve of elections, in which he was competing with Netanyahu, who talked about his good connections with them,” Shalom said.

On the day of the 2006 vote, around 5,000 East Jerusalemites cast their ballots at designated post offices around the city. In yet another compromise, the votes were taken in boxes to polling places in the West Bank, rather than being counted in Jerusalem itself. In turn, Israel agreed to view the votes as “absentee ballots.”

Hamas, aided by its opponent’s internal divisions, defeated Fatah in a landslide. The terror group also took the capital decisively, winning four of six available legislative seats.

The victory by Hamas — which has lead to the roiling, years-long crisis in Palestinian politics — has dimmed American and international enthusiasm for Palestinian elections.

“In 2006, there was international pressure, especially from the United States, to hold elections. You would need an equal campaign, not only from Washington but from the Arab states as well, to force Israel to allow it” now, said former senior defense official Michael Milshtein.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, right, casts his ballot during voting for local elections in the West Bank town of Ramallah on December 15, 2005. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen/File)

Critics accuse the Palestinian leadership of wielding the question of East Jerusalem participation as an excuse not to hold elections.

“It is an excuse, a way for all sides to climb down from the tree with dignity and not risk losing power,” said Milshtein.

A former official agreed: “Sharon and Abbas had an unwritten agreement to call off the vote over the East Jerusalem issue, because they knew that Abbas did not actually want it… Olmert could have stood by that, but he chose not to.”

In 2019, Abbas conditioned issuing a formal election decree launching the electoral process on an Israeli commitment to allow elections to take place.

“We will not hold elections without Jerusalem at their heart, meaning that every Jerusalem resident will vote from the heart of East Jerusalem,” Abbas told Gazans in a speech played at a Fatah rally in the coastal enclave at the time.

Israel reportedly ignored the request, and the election push fizzled out. Hamas, in turn, accused Abbas of capitulating to Israel and using Jerusalem as an excuse to “flee from the electoral path.”

“This Israeli decision should constitute an incentive for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to impose elections in Jerusalem,” said Hamas spokesperson Fawzi Barhum in late December 2019.

Experts say that technical solutions exist, should the Palestinian Authority be genuinely committed to elections, despite an Israeli refusal. East Jerusalem Palestinians could vote by mail, or they could vote in ballot boxes scattered throughout Area C, said Palestinian political analyst Jihad Harb.

“Voting in Jerusalem is largely symbolic, in any case. In the past two Palestinian elections, most East Jerusalemites did not vote at the designated ballot sites in East Jerusalem, but rather in polling places in Area C,” said Harb.

Al-Ahmad did not foreclose the possibility of a solution being found, saying that the Palestinian Central Elections Committee would have to determine the nature of Palestinian participation.

But he repeated his earlier statement, lest there be any doubt: “Without Jerusalem, there will be no elections.”

“We hope [Israel] doesn’t refuse. The international community who have issued statements on the matter, welcoming Abbas’s electoral decrees — all of them have stated that Israel must not place obstacles to Palestinian voting in East Jerusalem,” Al-Ahmad said.

A Palestinian man walks outside the Central Elections Commission offices in Gaza City on September 8, 2016. (AFP PHOTO / MOHAMMED ABED)

Several Palestinian factions, including Fatah and Hamas, met last week in Cairo to agree on election procedures. As the Palestinians have not held a national election since the current rift emerged, the sides debated the procedural aspects of conducting an election with two distinct regimes in the West Bank and Gaza.

The different factions agreed on the broad outlines of how the election would be conducted. But an independent elections court is yet to be assembled to resolve disputes. Both sides will need to commit to an election without politically motivated arrests. And there is the hard question of which movement’s security forces will monitor the elections.

These issues — more than Jerusalem — demand an enormous amount of trust between the two rival Palestinian parties, whose members still recall the violent civil war that split their national movement apart. Milshtein told The Times of Israel that he did not yet see the political will to resolve the rift.

“As I see it, it’s likely we’ll writing the obituary for these elections sooner rather than later,” said Milshtein.

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