Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Friday postponed planned parliamentary elections amid a dispute over voting in Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem and splits in his Fatah party.
Abbas, 85, blamed Israel for uncertainty about whether it would allow the legislative election to proceed in Jerusalem as well as in the occupied West Bank and Gaza.
The decision came three months after he announced the first national elections for 15 years in what was widely seen as a response to criticism of the democratic legitimacy of Palestinian institutions, including his own presidency.
The outcome of an election could be gains for Hamas, the Islamist militant group that controls Gaza. Abbas’s chief domestic rival, Hamas is regarded as a terrorist group by Israel, the United States and European Union but fought a well-organized campaign to defeat a similarly divided Fatah in 2006.
The dispute over Jerusalem was the principal reason cited by Abbas in a speech early Friday following a meeting of Palestinian political factions.
“Facing this difficult situation, we decided to postpone the date of holding legislative elections until the participation of Jerusalem and its people is guaranteed,” Abbas said in the speech on Palestinian TV.
The delay of the parliamentary elections set for May is likely to draw intense domestic criticism, with Abbas and his allies weakened by challengers from within his own divided Fatah party.
It was not immediately clear whether a presidential vote scheduled for July would go ahead.
The Palestinian Central Elections Commission said it was suspending the election process following Abbas’s decision. The election campaign was supposed to begin on Friday.
Protesters in Gaza and the West Bank called for the elections to proceed as scheduled - for many it would be their first election.
“As a young Palestinian citizen, I call for conducting elections, and I want my right to elect so I would see new faces, young faces, and see new political stances,” said Wael Deys, from Hebron.
Hamas criticized the reversal. “We reject this decision which violates the national consensus, and Fatah movement bears responsibility for the consequences of this position,” spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri told Reuters.
Abbas had hinted at the delay for weeks by claiming that Israel had not agreed to permit East Jerusalem Palestinians to vote in the city.
A spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said earlier this week that there had been no formal Israeli announcement on whether it would allow Palestinian voting in Jerusalem - as it did during the last elections in 2006 - and Israeli officials said on Thursday that there had been no change.
But many Palestinians regard the Jerusalem issue as an excuse to avoid elections that a divided Fatah might well lose to Hamas.
Internal divisions surfaced in Abbas’s Fatah party when jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti and Nasser Al-Qudwa - a nephew of the party’s late founder Yasser Arafat - announced a rival slate of candidates to run against Abbas’s official lineup.
Nevertheless, election preparations were well under way, with thousands of new voters and three dozen party lists registered.
“The delay will cause a great disappointment among Palestinians, who most of them hoped it was time to end the divisions and bring about a change,” said Gaza analyst Talal Okal.
Abbas has been in power since 2005 and has ruled by decree for over a decade.
The timing of his election announcement was seen as aimed at repairing ties with U.S. President Joe Biden after they plummeted under predecessor Donald Trump.
But analysts say that with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict low on Biden’s priority list, Washington prefers to avoid elections that could empower Hamas and anger Israel as U.S. officials press ahead on nuclear talks with Iran.
Israel has been making it clear that it prefers an election delay, fearing its coordination with Abbas’s security forces in the West Bank would be undermined by the vote, said Shibley Telhami of the Brookings Institution.
“(To) the extent that Biden was prepared to confront Israel, his top priority has been the Iran nuclear deal,” Telhami said, adding that, among other factors, “this appeared to have weighed in on the Biden administration, with reduced enthusiasm for the election.”
State Department Spokesman Ned Price said on Thursday: “The exercise of democratic elections is a matter for the Palestinian people and for the Palestinian leadership to determine.”