Abbas announces postponement of Palestinian elections, without new date

The Palestinian president has justified the decision by Israel's lack of permission to vote in East Jerusalem
Discurso televisado del presidente palestino Mahmud Abbas sobre las próximas elecciones palestinas en una cafetería de la ciudad de Hebrón, en la Cisjordania ocupada, el 29 de abril de 2021 AFP/ HAZEM BADER

AFP/ HAZEM BADER  -   Televised speech by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on the upcoming Palestinian elections at a coffee shop in the occupied West Bank city of Hebron, 29 April 2021.

After 15 years, Palestinians received the news that they would be called to legislative and presidential elections. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced the call for elections in the Palestinian territories in January. The arrival of a new president in the White House precipitated the decision to hold elections that had not taken place since 2006.

The new elections were made possible after the nationalist Fatah party, led by Abbas, and the Islamist Hamas movement, which de facto rules in Gaza, reached a pact in early January. These elections were presented as a way to legitimise Palestinian political institutions, including Abbas's own presidency, which are under the shadow of corruption and authoritarianism.

El líder del movimiento palestino Hamás, Ismail Haniya AFP PHOTO / HO / IRANIAN SUPREME LEADER'S WEBSITE
AFP PHOTO / HO / IRANIAN SUPREME LEADER'S WEBSITE-The leader of the Palestinian Hamas movement, Ismail Haniya

The arrival of a new president in the White House opens a new window of opportunity for Palestine, after four years of stagnation under the presidency of Donald Trump. Biden has insisted on a two-state solution to end the Palestinian conflict. The elections came at an ideal time to present an image of commitment to democracy within the Palestinian territories to the international community.

But despite high expectations, Mahmoud Abbas has announced that the elections will not take place, due to Israeli impediments to voting in East Jerusalem, and are therefore postponed without a scheduled date. 

"The vote will be postponed until Israel agrees to allow Palestinians in East Jerusalem to participate," Abbas said during a conference of senior Palestinian officials. Abbas added that he had urged the international community to pressure Israel to allow campaigning and voting in East Jerusalem, a territory annexed by the Jewish state in 1967 and which Palestinians claim as their future capital.

 El ministro de Asuntos Exteriores de Palestina, Riyad al-Maliki, REUTERS/MANAURE QUINTERO
 REUTERS/MANAURE QUINTERO-Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki

This announcement has drawn criticism from many sectors of the population who had hoped that the elections, after 15 years of waiting, could help repair their fractured political system. Hamas, the de facto authority in Gaza, has described the decision to postpone the elections as a "coup d'état". "The decision to delay the elections runs counter to our national consensus and popular opinion. It is a blow against our agreements," Hamas said.

Abbas claimed that the Israeli authorities had failed to respond to the Palestinian request to hold the elections in East Jerusalem, making the vote impossible. The Oslo Accords, a series of bilateral agreements between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation, oblige Israel to allow a token number of Palestinians to vote in East Jerusalem at designated post offices.

Israel is hiding behind its own political blockade in order not to ensure the participation of East Jerusalem Palestinians. Abbas told the leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) that he had received a message from Israel that it could not offer guidance on the issue of Jerusalem because the Jewish state currently has no government. Israel itself is mired in the worst political crisis in its history, with no government formed following the 23 March elections, the fourth in less than two years.

El ex funcionario de Fatah Nasser al-Kidwa, en el centro a la izquierda, y la esposa de Marwan Barghouti, Fadwa, en el centro a la derecha, salen de la oficina de la Comisión Electoral Central Palestina tras registrar su lista conjunta para las próximas elecciones parlamentarias de mayo, en la ciudad cisjordana de Ramallah, el miércoles 31 de marzo de 2021 AP/NASSER NASSER
AP/NASSER NASSER-Former Fatah official Nasser al-Kidwa, centre left, and Marwan Barghouti's wife Fadwa, centre right, leave the Palestinian Central Elections Commission office after registering their joint list for the upcoming May parliamentary elections, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Wednesday, March 31, 2021.

Analysts and local media claim that there are other reasons that have caused Mahmoud Abbas to postpone such a crucial election. Abbas has been able to use the Israeli refusal to vote in Jerusalem as an excuse to avoid an election that his nationalist Fatah party is unlikely to win.

Among the main challengers to Abbas's candidacy is the 'Freedom List', headed by Kidwa, which has received the support of Marwan Barghouti, a popular leader serving multiple life sentences in Israeli prison. Likewise, former Fatah security chief Dahlan has emerged as clear competition, as he has been credited with introducing coronavirus vaccines in Gaza and distributing financial aid in the enclave, as well as in the West Bank.

Over the past week, Palestinian officials launched a campaign to show the public that they were making every effort to force Israel to allow a vote in East Jerusalem. Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki travelled back and forth to European capitals to drum up support for Israel.

Empleados de la Comisión Electoral Central Palestina muestran las listas electorales antes de las próximas elecciones generales, en las oficinas de distrito de la comisión en la ciudad de Hebrón, en la Cisjordania ocupada por Israel, el 6 de abril de 2021 AFP/ HAZEM BADER
AFP/ HAZEM BADER-Employees of the Palestinian Central Elections Commission display electoral lists ahead of the upcoming general elections, at the commission's district offices in the city of Hebron, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, 6 April 2021.

But despite this show of intent, anticipation for the vote has been building in the West Bank and Gaza for months. Thirty-six lists were set to run in the parliamentary elections, and campaigning was to officially begin this Friday. So it is more than likely that protests will follow this controversial announcement.

Tensions between Palestinians and Israelis have been rising in recent weeks, and the announcement may further aggravate the complex situation in East Jerusalem and throughout the occupied territories. East Jerusalem has already been the scene of daily demonstrations by Palestinian youths against Israeli police for two weeks. 

In this context, the call for new elections seems far from materialising. A new opportunity for the Palestinian population is slipping away, while tension, exhaustion and weariness are spreading.