Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Friday delayed planned elections, blaming Israel for uncertainty about whether it would allow them to proceed in East Jerusalem as well as in the occupied West Bank and Gaza.
“We have decided to postpone the election until the participation of our people in Jerusalem is guaranteed,” said Abbas in a speech on Palestinian TV.
The decision came three months after he announced the first national elections for 15 years in what was widely seen as a response to criticism of the democratic legitimacy of Palestinian institutions, including his own presidency.
Earlier on Thursday evening, Abbas said that disputes with Israel over holding legislative elections in East Jerusalem might mean the vote – Palestinians' first since 2006 – be delayed.
“As soon as Israel agrees” to let Palestinians vote in Jerusalem, “we’ll hold the election within a week,” Abbas told a meeting of representatives of most Palestinian factions in Ramallah, providing no clear timeline.
“This isn’t a technical issue, but rather an fundamental political one,” Abbas said.
The election is set for May, but multiple sources and officials said they would be delayed. The Palestinian Authority is expected to issue an official statement following the Thursday meeting.
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The Israelis “said they’re not against holding the elections, but not in Jerusalem,” Abbas said. He added Israel conveyed messages via the United States and several Arab states, arguing Israel’s caretaker government can’t decide on allowing the Jerusalem vote, which he dubbed “nonsense.”
The Palestinians, according to Abbas, appealed to the European Union and individual European countries “several times asking them to help us put pressure on Israel, but didn’t get any response from the Europeans… In our latest meeting they said they were disappointed and can’t move forward with Israel, which acts to foil any Palestinian political activity in Jerusalem.”
A top official from Abbas’ Fatah party considered close to the president told Haaretz earlier on Thursday the president prefers delaying the vote rather than canceling it altogether, in a bid to keep putting pressure on Israel to allow it to take place in East Jerusalem, where Israel prohibits any Palestinian Authority-affiliated political activity.
Deputy Fatah Chairman Mahmoud al-Alul told Voice of Palestine radio that holding elections without Jerusalem would effectively mean giving up any claims for the city to be the capital of a future Palestinian state. "We won't agree to any such thing," he said. "It won't be written in history books that we've given up on Jerusalem."
The official argument made in support of deferring the election is Israel’s opposition to voting in East Jerusalem, which Israel annexed in 1967 and over which the Palestinian Authority does not have jurisdiction.
The Israeli government has not officially said whether it would permit polling stations to be established there, but Palestinian political sources say Mahmoud Abbas is interested in the postponement due to concern that his Fatah party would not secure the electoral victory that it is seeking.
Hamas announced Wednesday that if the election was postponed, it would hold Israel responsible. “The Jerusalem vote is a red line,” Hamas said in a statement carried by Palestinian media, “and no Palestinian should accept an election without Jerusalem, our eternal capital.”
The group said the vote should take place in Jerusalem even without Israel’s agreement, claiming the Oslo Accords allow that.
Israeli defense agencies have been preparing for the possibility that the cancellation or postponement of the election will lead to unrest and violence in the West Bank, Jerusalem or the Gaza Strip.
Clashes also erupted in Jerusalem's Old City over barricades put up by Israeli police near the Damascus Gate over the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, but calm has been restored there too.