Palestinian Vote Delayed, Prolonging Split for West Bank and Gaza

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JERUSALEM — When the Palestinian Authority called in January for parliamentary elections, many Palestinians hoped the vote — the first in the occupied territories since 2006 — would revive Palestinian discourse, re-energize the independence movement and end a 14-year division between Palestinian leaders in the occupied West Bank and Gaza.

But those hopes were dashed Thursday night when President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority announced that the vote, scheduled for May 22, would be delayed indefinitely.

The news compounded an unsettled political dynamic across the occupied territories and the state of Israel, where both Israeli and Palestinian societies remain racked by political stalemate and division, where tensions are rising in Jerusalem and Gaza, and a return to peace negotiations appears less likely than ever.

The official reason for the postponement was the refusal by the Israeli government to confirm that it would allow voting in East Jerusalem, which was annexed by Israel after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. East Jerusalem is mainly populated by Palestinians who participate in elections for the Palestinian Authority, a semiautonomous institution that exerts partial jurisdiction in other parts of the occupied territories.

“We decided to postpone the legislative elections until guaranteeing that Jerusalem and its people take part,” said Mr. Abbas in a speech in Ramallah. “We don’t give up Jerusalem.”

But the postponement also served another purpose: Mr. Abbas was concerned that if the election went ahead, his party, Fatah, might lose ground to two Fatah splinter groups, according to a Palestinian official and a Western diplomat briefed by the Palestinian leadership.

Israeli officials, meanwhile, were concerned that the elections would lead to a greater role in the Palestinian leadership for Hamas, the militant Islamist group that wrested control of Gaza from Mr. Abbas in 2007, and which has never recognized Israel.

“It is a big mistake to go to these elections,” Kamil Abu Rokon, an Israeli general who oversaw administrative aspects of the occupation until earlier this month, said shortly before leaving his post. “My recommendation is not to cooperate.”

Analysts also said the Israeli leaders were happy to keep their Palestinian counterparts divided, since it undermines the Palestinians’ ability to pursue a final status agreement with Israel as a unified bloc.

Hamas condemned Mr. Abbas’s decision, describing it as a “coup” that lacked popular support.

The development comes amid a volatile period across the West Bank, Gaza and the state of Israel. Israeli politics is also at an impasse, following an election in March — Israel’s fourth in two years — in which both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his opponents failed to win a workable majority.

In Jerusalem, the situation is tense, following a march last week by far-right Jewish supremacists who chanted “Death to Arabs,” attacks on both Palestinians and Jews, and the provocative Israeli decision, now rescinded, to close a central plaza in East Jerusalem where Palestinians enjoy gathering during the ongoing month of Ramadan.

That unrest broke months of relative calm in Gaza, where militants fired dozens of rockets toward Israel last weekend to protest the situation in Jerusalem.

The city is at the heart of the pretext provided by Mr. Abbas to postpone elections.

Under the 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 election nor agreed to allow it. The Israeli government has not made a decision either way, an Israeli official confirmed, despite requests by the Palestinian leadership. The Israeli police have detained several representatives of Palestinian parties who attempted to campaign in the city.

Palestinian officials said that to proceed with an election without East Jerusalem would be tantamount to giving up Palestinian claims on 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 an adviser to Mr. Abbas. “Jerusalem cannot be forsaken or abandoned. You can’t surrender to the fait accompli that Israel tries to impose on Jerusalem.”

But insiders said Mr. Abbas had an ulterior motive for postponement.

Long the engine of the Palestinian national movement, Mr. Abbas’s party, Fatah, now faces unprecedented challenges, not only from its longtime rival Hamas but also from ex-Fatah grandees whose campaigns chipped away at support for their former party.

Were elections to go ahead, Fatah’s supporters would be forced to choose among three Fatah-linked factions — the official party; a splinter group led by an exiled former security chief, Muhammad Dahlan; and a second breakaway faction, headed by Nasser al-Kidwa, a former envoy to the United Nations, and Marwan Barghouti, a popular militant serving multiple life sentences in an Israeli prison for five counts of murder.

In the most recent poll, Mr. Abbas’s faction still came out on top, with about a quarter of the vote. But it was projected to fall far short of an overall majority because nearly as many voters said they would vote for the rival Fatah groups. Hamas polled under nine percent.

No Palestinian official would admit publicly this week that these factors affected Mr. Abbas’s thinking. But speaking on the condition of anonymity, a Palestinian official and a Western diplomat briefed by the Palestinians said that he feared losing 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 needs to be strong, it needs to lead the Palestine Liberation Organization and the national project,” said Wassel Abu Yousef, a member of the executive committee of the P.L.O., the official representative of the Palestinian people. “If there is harm to the national project, there will be heavy and powerful voices that will be in favor of postponing the elections.”

Some Palestinians met the postponement with a shrug. Many felt the elections would not have occurred in a particularly free environment, while some always suspected they would be canceled. Others felt voting for a Palestinian Parliament would have little effect on the biggest problem in their lives: the Israeli occupation.

Elections suggest “there is a sovereign entity in which people are participating in a democratic process,” said Yara Hawari, a senior analyst at Al Shabaka, a Palestinian research group. “But you can’t have a full democracy under occupation.”

Many Palestinians were nevertheless furious at being deprived of a rare chance to choose their representatives. Crowds of protesters, many of whom were too young to vote in the last Palestinian elections, demonstrated against the decision in both the West Bank and Gaza.

“The people demand the ballot box,” they chanted.

Muhammad Shehada, a 28-year-old unemployed civil engineer from Gaza City, called the decision “a big disappointment.” The situation in Jerusalem was no reason to cancel the elections, he said: “The occupation controls Jerusalem, whether the elections are held or not.”

The lack of elections also raises the specter of intra-Palestinian violence, since different factions will now have no peaceful forum in which to air their grievances and express their frustrations, said Mkhaimar Abusada, a political scientist at Al Azhar University in Gaza City.

“Many Palestinians were hoping that elections would ease the tension and friction between the factions,” said Dr. Abusada. But the election delay, he said, “will leave the Palestinians fighting against each other.”

Iyad Abuhweila contributed reporting from Gaza City, and Irit Pazner Garshowitz from Jerusalem.

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