Palestinians delay election amid Jerusalem dispute, infighting

Israeli security forces detain a Palestinian protester in Jerusalem's Old City, on April 29, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

JERUSALEM (BLOOMBERG) - The Palestinian Authority postponed its first legislative election in 15 years, a widely expected development that it blamed on Israel but may be designed to keep President Mahmoud Abbas in power.

Mr Abbas called the vote in January, with the apparent aim of showing a united Palestinian front to the Biden administration after four contentious years with the pro-Israel Donald Trump.

But Israel hadn't committed to allow the May 22 legislative vote to proceed in east Jerusalem - which Palestinians claim for a future capital - making the ballot untenable, Mr Abbas said late Thursday (April 29).

"If Israel agrees to hold elections in Jerusalem, we will hold elections next week," he said after convening Palestinian factions in Ramallah to discuss the fate of the vote.

He made no mention of the presidential election scheduled for July, which would be the first since he was elected in 2005 to a four-year term.

The fate of east Jerusalem is one of the most divisive issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with Israel currently claiming the entire city as its eternal and undivided capital.

"There are concerns that if elections take place without Jerusalem, this will affect the Palestinian position politically in the future," said Palestinian political analyst Jehad Harb, predicting the vote would take place within the next six months.

It's possible, however, that Mr Abbas used east Jerusalem voting rights as a pretext to avoid a possible electoral defeat.

One poll showed his Fatah party's official slate losing to a rival Fatah grouping. There's also the spectre of 2006, when surveys failed to forecast the militant Hamas movement's upset win.

A year later, Hamas wrested control of the Gaza Strip from Palestinian Authority security forces, and set up a rival administration that continues to this day. The rift paralysed the Palestinian legislature and allowed Mr Abbas to remain in power without any election since 2005.

Israel, which permitted voting in east Jerusalem in 2006, didn't publicly declare a position this time, and a government spokesman declined to comment.

But Mr Hussein al-Sheikh, a member of the Fatah Central Committee, said the Israeli government officially informed the Palestinian Authority that it opposes holding elections in east Jerusalem.

There are about 6,300 eligible voters in east Jerusalem, according to the Palestinian Central Elections Committee. An additional 150,000 east Jerusalem Palestinians can vote in West Bank areas where they also maintain residency.

The city was rocked by Israeli-Palestinian clashes in recent weeks, touching off rocket barrages into Israel from Gaza, where Hamas was waiting to see whether the election would be canceled.

A spokesman for the group, Mr Abdul Latif Al-Qanou, said that it rejected any delay. "The postponement of legislative elections contradicts national consensus and popular support," he said.

Neither Hamas nor the militant Islamic Jihad participated in the discussions that preceded the decision to postpone.

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