The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Palestinians postpone long-awaited elections in West Bank and Gaza

People watch a live broadcast of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's speech about elections in Ramallah in the Israeli-occupied West Bank on April 29. (Mohamad Torokman/Reuters)

JERUSALEM — Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said Thursday he will indefinitely postpone 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 starting next month, 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.”

In a statement following the meeting, he announced a delay until “we can guarantee the participation of Jerusalemites.” The president gave no timeline for rescheduling the vote.

Israeli officials have said 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,” Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Fleur Hassan-Nahoum said.

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Israeli and Palestinian security forces 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 during 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.

Israel aims to unite Jerusalem with better city services. Arabs want political change.

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 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 have not made 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 spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly. “This time, there was no discussion of different modalities at all. No serious attempt was made.”

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Abbas, who has been pressured to hold elections by the European governments that are major funders of the Palestinian Authority, announced the 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 occur. Just 39 percent of Palestinians thought the elections would happen on schedule, according to one poll, while 44 percent said they expected them to be postponed.

The U.S. Embassy declined to comment.

“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 an 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.”

Hamas stands to gain whether the elections were held or not, according to several Palestinian political analysts. It was on track to increase it legitimacy in the vote but will also be able to portray Abbas as weak for postponing it.

“Hamas is not affected by the lack of elections, and it is happy that it is scoring a point against [Abbas] on the Palestinian political scene,” said Mukhaimer Abu Saada, professor of political science at Al-Azhar University in Gaza.

Postponing the elections will deny younger Palestinians their first look at direct democracy, at least for now.

“For young Palestinians, it would have been their first opportunity to vote,” said Yara Hawari at the Ramallah-based policy think tank Al-Shabaka.

Like other commentators, Hawari attributes Abbas move as a combination of his own political insecurity and frustration at Israel.

“The use of Jerusalem as an excuse is an age-old tactic,” she said. “But Jerusalem is an important issue.”

Balousha reported from Gaza.