JERUSALEM – When the Palestinian Authority called for parliamentary elections in January, many Palestinians hoped that the vote – the first in the occupied territories since 2006 – would revive Palestinian discourse, re-energize the independence movement and end a division of 14 years between Palestinian leaders in the occupied West Bank and Gaza.
But those hopes were dashed Thursday evening when President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority announced that the vote, scheduled for May 22, would be delayed indefinitely.
The news has aggravated unstable political dynamics in the occupied territories and in the State of Israel, where Israeli and Palestinian societies remain in political stalemate and division, where tensions are growing in Jerusalem and Gaza, and a return to peace negotiations seems less likely than ever.
The official reason for the postponement was the Israeli government’s refusal to confirm that it would allow voting in East Jerusalem, annexed by Israel after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. ‘Palestinian Authority, a semi-autonomous institution which exercises partial jurisdiction in other parts of the occupied territories.
“We have decided to postpone the legislative elections until the participation of Jerusalem and its people is guaranteed,” Abbas said in a speech in Ramallah. “We are not abandoning Jerusalem.”
But the postponement also had another purpose: Mr Abbas feared that if the elections continued his party, Fatah, could lose ground to two Fatah dissident groups, according to a Palestinian official and a Western diplomat briefed by the authorities. Palestinian leaders.
Israeli officials, meanwhile, feared the elections would lead to a greater role in the Palestinian leadership of Hamas, the militant Islamist group that wrested control of Gaza from Mr. Abbas in 2007, and which has never recognized Israel.
“It is a grave mistake to go to these elections,” said Kamil Abu Rokon, an Israeli general who oversaw the administrative aspects of the occupation until earlier this month, mentionned shortly before leaving his post. “My recommendation is not to cooperate.”
Analysts also said Israeli leaders were happy to keep their Palestinian counterparts divided, as it compromises the Palestinians’ ability to seek a final status agreement with Israel as a unified bloc.
Hamas condemned Mr. Abbas’ decision, describing it as a “coup” that lacked popular support.
The development comes in the midst of a volatile period in the West Bank, Gaza and the State of Israel. Israeli politics are also at an impasse, after an election in March – Israel’s fourth in two years – in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his opponents failed to secure a viable majority.
In Jerusalem, the situation is tense, following a march last week by far-right Jewish supremacists who chanted “Death to the Arabs”, attacks on Palestinians and Jews; and Israel’s now-overturned provocative decision to close a central plaza in East Jerusalem where Palestinians like to congregate during the current month of Ramadan.
The unrest shattered 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 heart of the pretext provided by Mr. Abbas to postpone the elections.
Under interim agreements signed in the 1990s between Israeli and Palestinian leaders known as the Oslo Accords, the Israeli government is obliged to allow Palestinian elections in East Jerusalem.
But Israel has neither blocked the elections nor agreed to allow them. The Israeli government has not made a decision one way or the other, an Israeli official confirmed, despite demands from the Palestinian leadership. Israeli police arrested several representatives of Palestinian parties who were trying to campaign in the city.
Palestinian officials have said that to conduct an election without East Jerusalem would be tantamount to renouncing Palestinian claims to the city and its sacred Islamic sites, including the Aqsa Mosque.
“It’s not that we are trying to avoid elections,” said Ziad Abu Amr, deputy prime minister of the Palestinian Authority and adviser to Mr. Abbas. “Jerusalem cannot be abandoned or abandoned. You cannot surrender to the fait accompli that Israel is trying to impose on Jerusalem. “
But insiders said Abbas had an ulterior motive for the postponement.
Long the driving force behind the Palestinian national movement, Mr. Abbas’s Fatah party now faces unprecedented challenges, not only from its longtime rival Hamas, but also from former Fatah greats including campaigns have reduced support for their old party.
If the elections were held, Fatah supporters would be forced to choose from three factions linked to Fatah – the official party; a splinter group led by a former exiled security chief, Muhammad Dahlan; and a second separatist faction, led by Nasser al-Kidwa, a former envoy to the United Nations, and Marwan Barghouti, a popular activist serving several life sentences in an Israeli prison for five counts of murder.
In the most recent poll, Mr. Abbas’s faction consistently came out on top, with around a quarter of the vote. But the overall majority was expected to be far from being reached, as nearly as many voters said they would vote for rival Fatah groups. Hamas polled less than 9%.
No Palestinian official would publicly admit this week that these factors have affected Mr. Abbas’ thinking. But speaking on condition of anonymity, a Palestinian official and a Western diplomat briefed by the Palestinians said he feared losing his influence to his former allies.
And after Mr. Kidwa and Mr. Barghouti broke with Mr. Abbas in March, a senior Palestinian official said in an interview with the New York Times that the move put the elections at risk because it risked undermining Fatah.
“Fatah’s situation must be solid, it must lead the Palestine Liberation Organization and the national project,” said Wassel Abu Yousef, member of the PLO’s executive committee, the official representative of the Palestinian people. “If there is any prejudice to the national project, there will be strong and powerful voices which will be in favor of the postponement of the elections.”
Some Palestinians greeted the postponement with a shrug. Many felt that the elections would not have taken place in a particularly free environment, while some always suspected that they would be annulled. Others believed that voting for a Palestinian parliament would have little effect on the biggest problem of their lives: the Israeli occupation.
The 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 a full-fledged democracy under occupation.”
However, many Palestinians were furious at being denied a rare chance to choose their representatives. Crowds of protesters, many too young to vote in the last Palestinian elections, demonstrated against the decision in the West Bank and Gaza.
“People are calling for the ballot boxes,” they chanted.
Muhammad Shehada, a 28-year-old unemployed civil engineer from Gaza City, called the move “a big disappointment.” The situation in Jerusalem was not a reason to cancel the elections, he said: “The occupation controls Jerusalem whether the elections take place or not.”
The absence of elections also raises the specter of intra-Palestinian violence, as the different factions will no longer have a peaceful forum to voice their grievances and express their frustrations, said Mkhaimar Abusada, political scientist at Al Azhar University. of Gaza City.
“Many Palestinians hoped that the elections would ease tensions and friction between factions,” said Dr Abusada. But postponing the elections, he said, “will let the Palestinians fight against each other.”
Iyad Abuhweila contributed reporting from Gaza City and Irit Pazner Garshowitz from Jerusalem.