Yasser Arafat’s latest health crisis — a severe flu, gallstones, a battery of cancer tests — has exposed how unprepared the Palestinians are for their leader’s death, making a chaotic transition period all but inevitable.
Arafat, 75 and noticeably weakened after more than two years of confinement to a dank compound, still refuses to groom a successor and rival security chiefs are already battling one another in the streets.
No leader of Arafat’s stature and popularity is waiting in the wings, said Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian legislator. “It’s only natural to expect that there would be either a power struggle or there would be a loss of cohesion,” she said.
Analysts said it could take years for a leader to emerge, hurting prospects for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.
Tenuous control as it is
Even with Arafat still alive, chaos has gripped much of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Gunmen routinely commandeer government offices or hold employees hostage to demand jobs or housing. In recent months, security agents loyal to Gaza strongman Mohammed Dahlan, who has presidential ambitions, have clashed with supporters of another security chief, Moussa Arafat, a relative of the president’s.
Without Arafat’s unifying presence, simmering political rivalries would likely explode. In his Fatah movement, the old guard — Arafat contemporaries who returned with him from exile in the 1990s — is trying to keep out younger activists who remained in the West Bank and Gaza, fought Israel in two uprisings and now demand to be rewarded with political power.
Fatah also faces stiff competition from the militant group Hamas, which hopes to capitalize on massive frustration with Arafat’s corrupt government during local elections in December.
Ostensibly, a leader would emerge
On paper, at least, a path of succession has been charted.
The parliament speaker would replace Arafat as president of the Palestinian Authority for 60 days, until elections were held.
However, Speaker Rauhi Fattouh is a bland backbencher uncertain to hold on during a turbulent transition period, and timely elections appear unlikely.
Arafat’s other post, as chief of the Palestine Liberation Organization, would be filled, at least temporarily, by his deputy in the organization, Mahmoud Abbas, a former prime minister who resigned last year after power struggles with Arafat.
Barry Rubin, an Israeli biographer of Arafat, predicted that it would take several years before a real leader emerges. “As long as the battle goes on, no one can make decisions, especially moderate or compromise decisions,” Rubin said. “This means the chances of a negotiated peace are close to zero.”
Israel and the United States, however, hold out hope that a post-Arafat Middle East would will be more conducive to peace because of what they say is Arafat’s blind eye to terror and opposition to reform.
Difficult figure to work with
The autocratic Arafat has refused to anoint a successor for fear an impatient protege would try to topple him. He has also alienated many of his peers.
Abbas has not spoken to his old comrade for more than a year. Only Arafat’s deteriorating health persuaded Abbas to make a bedside visit to the Palestinian leader in his Ramallah headquarters Monday.
Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia is also given little chance of taking the reins, even in a transitional government. Qureia, a former parliament speaker, lost much of his prestige with his new job.
Polls show that the second most popular Palestinian after Arafat is Marwan Barghouti, a leader of Fatah’s young guard. But Barghouti is serving five consecutive life terms in an Israeli prison for involvement in deadly shooting attacks.
There is no guarantee that Barghouti, who supports a two-state solution, would get parole, even though it might be in Israel’s interest. A poll by Bir Zeit University in the West Bank indicated that Barghouti would easily defeat a Hamas candidate in presidential elections.
Arafat still the king
For now, Arafat remains the undisputed leader, and would easily win if presidential elections were held in his lifetime. Many Palestinians are upset with his rule, but they still defer to him as the last guarantor of unity and a symbol of statehood dreams. No one has demanded that he step aside on medical grounds.
Even in private conversations, Arafat’s confidants do not like to discuss the possibility of his death, in part because they fear that word might leak and Arafat would accuse them of plotting his overthrow. Something as basic as funeral arrangements have not been discussed.
Cloistered in his compound, Arafat is stubbornly grooming an image as a martyr for the Palestinian cause, at the expense of his health.
Citing concern about renewed Israeli raids, he insists on sleeping in a cramped room, a former filing area adjacent to his office. He believes his old, airy bedroom, which was destroyed by Israeli troops but has been rebuilt, is too exposed.
“There was a window in his office, but he blocked it with metal plates,” said Azzam Ahmed, the communications minister.
Fueling the myth, Arafat sleeps with an assault rifle by his side, and says he would rather go down fighting than die in his sleep.