JERUSALEM – President Mahmoud Abbas announced early Friday that the first Palestinian elections in 15 years will be delayed, citing a dispute with Israel to call off a vote in which his fractured Fatah party was expected to suffer another embarrassing defeat to the Hamas militant group.
Hamas slammed the move as a “coup." But the indefinite postponement will be quietly welcomed by Israel and Western countries, which view the Islamic militant group as a terrorist organization and are concerned about its growing strength.
For ordinary Palestinians, the delay leaves a long-entrenched political leadership in place that has failed to advance their hopes for statehood, heal the bitter rift between Fatah and Hamas or lift the blockade on the Gaza Strip, and which is seen as increasingly corrupt and authoritarian. Presidential elections planned for July also appeared to be on hold.
Abbas insisted elections could not be held without the full participation of Palestinians in east Jerusalem. Israel has yet to say whether it would allow voting by mail there as in past elections and has enforced a ban on Palestinian Authority activities, including campaign events.
“Faced with this difficult situation, we decided to postpone the date of holding legislative elections until the participation of Jerusalem and its people in these elections is guaranteed,” Abbas said. "There will be no concession on Jerusalem and no concession on our people in Jerusalem exercising their democratic rights.”
The fate of east Jerusalem, home to holy sites sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims, is one of the most sensitive issues in the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But delaying the elections over Jerusalem could also be seen as a pretext, because only a small number of voters in the city would actually require Israel's permission. Abbas' rivals had suggested workarounds so as not to give Israel an effective veto over elections.
Abbas said the Palestinian Authority has repeatedly sought assurances from Israel and has called on the European Union to exert pressure, to no avail. He said it received a letter from Israel on Thursday saying it could not take a position on the elections because it does not yet have a government following its own elections last month — the fourth in two years.
Hamas had been expected to perform well in the May 22 parliamentary elections because of widening divisions within Fatah, which split into three rival lists. The militant group condemned the delay, saying the decision “doesn’t agree with the national consensus and popular support and is a coup.”
Prior to the announcement, Hamas had issued a statement saying the Palestinians should explore ways of “forcing the elections in Jerusalem without the permission of or coordination with the occupation.”
Israel has not said whether it will allow voting in east Jerusalem but has expressed concern about Hamas' growing strength. Israel and Western countries would likely boycott any Palestinian government that includes the group.
The day after President Joe Biden exhorted Americans to “prove that democracy still works" in an address to Congress, his State Department distanced itself from the Palestinian vote.
“The exercise of democratic elections is a matter for the Palestinian people and for the Palestinian leadership to determine," spokesman Ned Price told reporters in Washington. “We believe in an inclusive political process."
Israel captured east Jerusalem, along with the West Bank and Gaza, in the 1967 war, territories the Palestinians want for their future state. Israel annexed east Jerusalem in a move not recognized internationally and views the entire city as its capital, barring the Palestinian Authority from operating there. The Palestinians consider east Jerusalem their capital.
According to interim peace agreements reached in the 1990s — which were rejected by Hamas — some 6,000 Palestinians in east Jerusalem submit their ballots through Israeli post offices. The other 150,000 can vote with or without Israel's permission.
Fatah says the elections cannot be held without Israel giving express permission for east Jerusalem residents to vote. Its opponents have called for creative solutions, such as setting up ballot boxes in schools or religious sites.
But Abbas appeared to rule that out, joking that the Palestinians would not vote in “the Hungarian Embassy.”
The dispute has taken on greater import since the start of the holy month of Ramadan, as Muslim protesters have clashed with Israeli police over restrictions on gatherings.
The elections, and a presidential vote planned for July 31, offered a rare opportunity for the Palestinians to empower a new leadership and potentially chart a different course in their long, stalled struggle for independence.
The 85-year-old Abbas and his inner circle of Fatah figures, now in their 60s and 70s, have dominated the Palestinian Authority for nearly two decades and have made little effort to empower a new generation of leaders.
The last elections, held in 2006 with international support and Israeli cooperation, saw Hamas win a landslide victory after campaigning as a scrappy underdog untainted by corruption. That sparked an internal crisis culminating in Hamas' seizure of Gaza the following year, which confined Abbas' authority to parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Hamas' popularity has fallen in the years since, as conditions in Gaza have steadily deteriorated. But it has remained unified and disciplined even as Fatah has split into three rival parliamentary lists.
Hamas does not recognize Israel's right to exist and has fought three wars with it since seizing control of Gaza. It has also carried out scores of attacks over the past three decades that have killed hundreds of Israeli civilians.
Associated Press reporters Matthew Lee in Washington; Areej Hazboun in Jerusalem and Fares Akram in Gaza City, Gaza Strip contributed to this report.