Apr 21, 2021 - World

Abbas weighs delay of Palestinian parliamentary elections

Studying the electoral rolls in Ramallah. Photo: Abbas Momani/AFP via Getty

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is seriously considering postponing the May 22 parliamentary elections and could announce the move within days, Palestinian and Israeli sources say. The Biden administration is hinting it wouldn't object to such a move.

Why it matters: The May vote would be the first election in the Palestinian Authority in 15 years. A postponement would be a sign of the deep democratic deficit in the West Bank and Gaza and could lead to protests.

  • Abbas and his close aides are concerned they could lose the election and strengthen Hamas.
  • Israel and the Biden administration privately share those concerns.

Driving the news: On Monday, Abbas convened a meeting of the leadership of his Fatah party.

  • In a public statement after the meeting, he stressed his commitment to holding the election on time.
  • But in the meeting itself, he discussed the possibility of postponing it, citing possible interference with voting in East Jerusalem.
  • In another statement, Abbas and the chair of Hamas' political bureau, Ismail Haniyeh, stressed that the elections must include Jerusalem. This was a change for Hamas, which hadn't previously held up voting in Jerusalem as a pre-condition for holding the elections. 

The state of play: The Palestinians asked Israel several weeks ago to officially allow the elections to take place in East Jerusalem. Israel neither rejected nor approved the request.

  • Israeli and Palestinian officials say that to this day, Israel hasn’t responded. Netanyahu still hasn’t made a decision on the issue, Israeli officials say.
  • In private talks, Israeli officials have told their U.S. and European counterparts that Israel won't sabotage the election and noted that Israel did allow voting in East Jerusalem in 2006. But they haven't committed to allowing voting this time.
  • Meanwhile, the Israeli police have prevented Palestinian candidates from holding election rallies and press conferences in Jerusalem and even arrested several candidates.

Behind the scenes: Abbas had been telling foreign dignitaries that the Biden administration pressed him to hold the elections. When U.S. officials got wind of that, they asked Abbas and his aides to stop because it wasn’t true, sources familiar with the issue told me.

  • The Biden administration isn’t pressing the Palestinians to postpone the elections either, but it is signaling it would not object.
  • “We have taken a consistent position that the exercise of democratic elections is a matter for the Palestinian government and people to determine, not the U.S. government. That remains our position. It is up to the Palestinians to determine how to proceed," a senior U.S. official told me.

What they're saying: Abbas' adviser Nabil Shaath told An-Nahar newspaper on Tuesday that the elections could be postponed if Israel doesn't respond to the Palestinian request — the first time a Palestinian official raised the possibility of postponement publicly.

  • Palestinian and Israeli officials said Shaath’s statement reflects Abbas’ thinking.
  • “The penny finally dropped, and Abbas finally understood he is way over his head, that his party is weak and divided and that the price of postponing the elections could be lower than continuing with it," an Israeli official said.

What’s next: Palestinian sources say Abbas is now looking for a public explanation for a potential postponement, and East Jerusalem is the likely rationale. Hamas' view on a delay is less clear.

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