Palestinians wearing protective face masks amid the coronavirus pandemic hold pictures of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas during a September rally in the West Bank town of Tubas.

Majdi Mohammed/AP

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Majdi Mohammed/AP

Palestinians wearing protective face masks amid the coronavirus pandemic hold pictures of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas during a September rally in the West Bank town of Tubas.

Majdi Mohammed/AP

RAMALLAH, West Bank – It was meant to be a historic and long-overdue vote aimed at ending 15 years of paralyzed and divided leadership. Instead, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Thursday called off next month’s parliamentary elections after challengers from his own party threatened to weaken his hold on power. Abbas’ decision, which came just two days before campaigning was supposed to begin, indefinitely postponed the May 22 vote and apparently a July presidential election as well. The postponement angered Palestinians eager to replace a president who has not held a vote in a decade-and-a-half and failed to deliver on his main goal of achieving independence from Israel. Street protests broke out in several cities in the West Bank and Gaza. “People have been waiting for elections for 15 years, hoping this would be the light at the end of tunnel, especially given the absence of a peace track with Israel,” said Fadi Elsalameen, a Palestinian democracy activist and prominent critic of Abbas, speaking before the announcement. “Closing this window will have severe consequences…I believe it will lead to violence against the Palestinian leadership.”

At a late-night meeting with party leaders Thursday, Abbas said Israel refused to commit to allowing Palestinians to vote in Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem, which Palestinian leaders claim for a future capital. Israel has not stated its position publicly. “We will not move to hold elections without Jerusalem,” Abbas said. Shortly after midnight, he read from a statement: “Due to this difficult situation, we decided to postpone the legislative elections until the participation of Jerusalem and its people is guaranteed,” he said. “We will not relinquish our rights to Jerusalem and the rights of its people to exercise their legitimate democratic rights.” But some other Palestinian officials offered a different explanation for postponing the vote, that a majority of Abbas’ party leaders, Israel and regional Arab allies all urged a postponement because it could expedite the end of his political career. After elections were announced in January, Abbas’ secular Fatah party, which is committed to peace negotiations with Israel, splintered into competing lists of candidates backed by former allies who now seek to replace him. A divided Fatah leaves the rival Islamist party Hamas, committed to armed resistance against Israel, most likely to win the largest number of seats in the 132-member parliament. Under those circumstances, any viable government would need to rely on Hamas support. The U.S. and Israel are wary of Hamas involvement and, unlike the European Union, did not seem to be pressing hard for a vote.

Hamas said it strongly opposed the decision to call off elections, maintaining that Palestinians could have forced a vote in Jerusalem and blaming Abbas for any possible “repercussions.” “We live and exist in a space that is incredibly repressive of political expression, incredibly repressive of political opposition,” said Yara Hawari, Palestinian policy analyst with the Al-Shabaka think tank. “It comes from the (Palestinian Authority), it comes from the Israeli regime and also comes from the international community.” Abbas’ former allies established two competing groups of candidates for the election: the Freedom List, backed by Marwan Barghouti, a popular Palestinian figure serving a life sentence in Israeli prison, and the Future List, backed by Mohammed Dahlan, a former Palestinian security official turned Abbas opponent-in-exile in the United Arab Emirates. Abbas could seek to delay elections until he can reunite his party and improve its chances of victory, analysts say, but he will pay a political price for calling off elections less than a month before the vote. “There’s a real thirst for change…the postponement would lead to a great deal of anger,” said veteran Palestinian politician Hanan Ashrawi before the decision, who resigned from the Palestine Liberation Organization leadership last year to protest the lack of elections and increased concentration of power in the hands of the presidency. “This could go so far as to have people refuse to recognize the legitimacy of the leadership or declare a civil disobedience,” Ashwari said. A Hamas victory is exactly what happened in 2006, the last time parliamentary elections were held. Israel and the West consider Hamas a terrorist organization and refused to deal with them, and Abbas’ party refused to share power. Hamas wrested control of the Gaza Strip a year later in a brief, bloody battle, leaving Abbas only in control of parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Israel and Egypt have enforced a blockade on Gaza to protest Hamas control, choking the economy and exacerbating a humanitarian disaster there. “The Palestinian elections were expected to find solutions to our economic, political and even social problems,” said Rami Shaath, a 20-year-old student in Gaza. “Postponing the elections means refusal by decision makers to give someone else the opportunity to manage the crisis, especially since our situation in the outcasted Gaza Strip will become more difficult.” The Palestinian parliament, known as the Legislative Council, has not convened in years. Its stone building in the West Bank city of Ramallah stands dormant behind a closed iron gate. On a recent afternoon, the only activity there was a woman on the street who stopped to pick a rose from a bush peeking through the gate. Anas Baba contributed reporting from Gaza City.