Concern by the West that Hamas would capture a sizeable number of seats in the Jan. 25 Palestinian parliamentary election (thereby jeopardizing foreign aid to the Palestinian Authority and the position of its president, Mahmoud Abbas) has led to suspicion of a behind-the-scenes understandings between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
Under the arrangement, Israel would announce that it is barring East Jerusalem Palestinians from voting in East Jerusalem itself and Abbas would then announce that the election has been postponed until the ban has been lifted.
"The Americans did not want Hamas to win and Abu Mazen would have looked undemocratic if he postponed the election," said one analyst, using Abbas’ nickname.
Although such an understanding could not be confirmed, one source said simply, "There was an unusual meeting of interests where none of the parties wanted Hamas to win."
Arye Mekel, Israel’s consul general in New York, said Israel decided "not to allow the elections in East Jerusalem because of Hamas. But if those residents want to vote in areas that are not part of the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem, we will not prevent it." On two occasions in the past (the legislative election in 1996 and in the Palestinian Authority’s leadership contest earlier this year) East Jerusalem residents were allowed to cast their ballots at their local post office. In both cases, only 1,200 East Jerusalem residents voted in East Jerusalem out of 110,000 eligible voters and 50,000 voted outside of Jerusalem, Mekel noted.
Palestinian Information Minister Nabil Shaath was quoted by the Jerusalem Post as saying that such a voting ban would be grounds for calling off the election.
"If the Israelis insist on not allowing us to conduct the elections in Jerusalem, then there will be no elections at all," he said.
Ephraim Inbar, a professor at Bar-Ilan University, said Israel had erred when it permitted East Jerusalem residents to vote in the past and that it was correct in banning such voting this time.
"If they want to vote they can travel two or three miles and vote in Ramallah," he said.
He added that Jerusalem is part of Israel and that he could not "see any reason" why Palestinian residents of Jerusalem should be allowed to vote there for the Palestinian parliament.
But Judith Kipper, director of the Middle East Forum at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the future of Jerusalem is one of the critical issues dividing Israel and the Palestinians.
"This is the one very passionate issue and there can be no settlement [between Israel and the Palestinians] without East Jerusalem [being resolved]," she said. "To now exclude those who live there is very, very serious. Hamas running is one thing, but this action against East Jerusalem residents, some of whose families have lived there for centuries, is very different."