Egyptian officials say the Palestinian Authority plans to call off its first elections in 15 years, citing Israel’s refusal to allow voting in East Jerusalem.
The decision would effectively grant Israel a veto over the holding of elections, though President Mahmoud Abbas could also benefit from cancelling a vote in which his fractured Fatah party is expected to lose power and influence to the Islamic militant group Hamas.
Israel told European ambassadors on Tuesday that it would not prevent Palestinian elections, but authorities have yet to say whether they will allow voting in East Jerusalem. Israel’s silence on the issue indicates that it would rather be blamed for a postponement than see elections that further empower Hamas.
An Egyptian diplomat and an intelligence official said they had been briefed on the Palestinians’ decision to cancel the election, which will be announced Thursday at a meeting of Palestinian factions. They said Egypt is in talks with Israel to reach a compromise to allow the vote but those efforts have so far failed.
The two spoke late Monday on condition of anonymity to discuss the closed-door talks.
The intelligence official said Hamas wants the elections to go ahead but that no faction wants to proceed without guarantees from the international community that voting will be held in East Jerusalem. The official said the factions are discussing the formation of a unity government instead that would include Hamas.
A Palestinian official said no decision will be made until the factions meet on Thursday, and that if Israel decides to allow voting in East Jerusalem, the May 22 parliamentary elections will go ahead as planned. The official said Fatah is opposed to holding elections without East Jerusalem because it would mean accepting Israel’s annexation.
The official was not authorized to talk to reporters and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Israel captured East Jerusalem, along with the West Bank and Gaza, in the 1967 war. The Palestinians want all three territories for their future state and view East Jerusalem as their capital.
Israel annexed the eastern sector of the city in a move not recognized internationally. It considers all of Jerusalem to be its capital and bars the Palestinian Authority from operating there. The city’s fate has been one of the thorniest issues in the peace process, which ground to a halt more than a decade ago.
The Palestinian Election Commission says 6,000 voters in East Jerusalem would need to submit their ballots through Israeli post offices in accordance with past agreements while the other 150,000 could vote with or without Israeli permission.
The small number of voters who require Israeli permission are unlikely to have a decisive impact on the vote, but their participation is seen as symbolically important for maintaining Palestinian claims to East Jerusalem.
They also provide a pretext for Abbas to cancel a parliamentary election in which many observers expect Hamas would emerge as the biggest party in parliament.
Growing strength of Hamas ‘worrying’: Israel
Israel and the international community, which view Hamas as a terrorist group, would also quietly welcome delaying or cancelling the vote. Hamas’s landslide victory in the 2006 parliamentary elections sparked a crisis that culminated with the militant group seizing Gaza from Abbas’s forces and confining his authority to parts of the occupied West Bank.
Alon Bar, a senior official in Israel’s Foreign Ministry, told the EU ambassadors that Israel would not prevent Palestinian elections from taking place, calling it an internal Palestinian issue, according to a Foreign Ministry statement.
The statement did not address the question of voting in East Jerusalem. It did, however, quote Bar as calling Hamas’s growing strength “worrying” given its encouragement of recent violence in Jerusalem and the firing of rockets from Gaza.
“Israel is acting with caution and responsibility to prevent a deterioration of the situation on the ground and expects the European countries to act in the same manner,” Bar said.
Calling off the elections would also pose risks for Abbas, who has seen his popularity plummet in recent years as the Palestinian Authority has come to be seen by many Palestinians as increasingly corrupt and authoritarian.
Nour Odeh, a parliamentary candidate for a rival list led by current and former senior Fatah members, said she was “extremely concerned” that the elections would be cancelled. She said the Palestinians should seek creative solutions to allow voting in East Jerusalem.
“Holding elections in Jerusalem is part of the battle for Palestinian freedom,” she said.
“Instead of waiting for Israeli permission or facilitation to hold elections through the Israeli post office, we need to come up with different solutions,” she said, including potentially placing ballot boxes in schools and religious sites.
In addition to the parliamentary vote, a Palestinian presidential election is scheduled for July 31.