Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said early Friday that the main factions have agreed to delay the first elections planned in 15 years, citing a dispute with Israel over voting in east Jerusalem.
The decision spares Abbas’ fractured Fatah party from what was widely expected to be another embarrassing defeat to the Islamic militant group Hamas, which slammed the move as a “coup.” It will be quietly welcomed by Israel and Western countries, which view Hamas as a terrorist group and are concerned about its growing strength.
But it leaves a political leadership in place that has failed to advance Palestinian hopes for statehood and is seen as increasingly corrupt and authoritarian.
Speaking at the start of the meeting, Abbas focused his remarks on east Jerusalem, where Israel has yet to say whether it would allow voting by mail as in past elections and has enforced a ban on Palestinian Authority activities, including campaign events.
“We will take the proper decision to preserve all our rights in east Jerusalem, our eternal capital, including the right to hold parliamentary elections there,” Abbas said in a lengthy speech before the closed-door part of the gathering.
He announced the decision shortly after midnight Thursday.
Postponing the vote over Jerusalem could be seen as a pretext, as only a small number of voters in the city would actually require Israel’s permission and several candidates have suggested workarounds.
Abbas said the Palestinian Authority has repeatedly sought assurances from Israel and called on the European Union to exert pressure, to no avail. He said it received a letter from Israel on Thursday saying it could not take a position on the elections because it does not yet have a government of its own following last month’s elections.
The Islamic militant group Hamas, which stands to gain influence in the elections, condemned the decision, saying it “doesn’t agree with the national consensus and popular support and is a coup.”
Prior to the announcement, Hamas had issued a statement saying the Palestinians should explore ways of “forcing the elections in Jerusalem without the permission of or coordination with the occupation.”
The group also issued a veiled warning to Abbas without mentioning him by name, saying Hamas “will not be party to any postponement or cancellation and will not provide cover.”
The responsibility for any such decision “will rest with those who take it in response to the veto of the occupation,” it said.
Israel has not said whether it will allow voting in east Jerusalem but has expressed concern about Hamas’ growing strength. Israel and Western countries view Hamas as a terrorist group and would likely boycott any Palestinian government that includes it.