Arafat out of the Picture, Speculation Abounds As to Who Will Succeed Him

When the Islamic Prophet Mohammed was dying in 632 A.D., one of his disciples, the future Caliph Omar, raised his sword to strike down anyone who dared to claim that the prophet had breathed his last breath.

According to Islamic tradition, Omar’s colleague Abu-Bakr rebuked him. “If anyone worships Mohammed, Mohammed is dead. If anyone worships God, God is alive, immortal,” Abu Bakr said.

If that was the case with Mohammed, many Palestinians argued this week, then it certainly is true of Yasser Arafat, who has been on life-support for the past few days in a Paris hospital as his wife and Palestinian Authority leaders guard information on his condition.

The story about Mohammed has made the rounds in Palestinian areas to justify the transfer of power in the Palestinian Authority even before Arafat was declared dead. The current and former P.A. prime ministers divvied up Arafat’s responsibilities when he left for France in late October.

The power shift generally was accepted, but one important Palestinian — the ailing president’s wife, Suha — rejected it.

On Sunday, Suha Arafat charged three veteran Palestinian leaders — P.A. Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei; Mahmoud Abbas, chairman of the PLO’s executive committee and a former P.A. prime minister; and Foreign Minister Nabil Sha’ath — of a conspiracy to “bury Abu Ammar while he was still alive.”

Abu Ammar is Arafat’s nom de guerre.

Suha Arafat made her dramatic statement in an emotional interview with Al-Jazeera, the Arabic satellite television station, while the three leaders were en route to Paris to look into Arafat’s condition.

Suha Arafat, who had not visited the Palestinian areas nor seen her husband since the intifada began more than four years ago, has closely controlled access to her husband in Paris. But the Palestinian leaders going to Paris stressed that as the national leader, Arafat belonged to the entire Palestinian people, not just to his wife.

In Israel, Suha Arafat’s unexpected broadside was seen as part of a behind-the-scenes battle for an estimated $900 million in Arafat’s bank accounts, much of it believed to be looted from public P.A. funds. But the impression her outburst may create could further complicate efforts to ensure a smooth transition of power once Arafat is declared dead.

So far, the name of the game has been unity, with everyone from the old guard to the young guard and Fatah to Hamas saying: Let everyone appear united until the “day after,” until the present political mist clears.

Under Palestinian law, Rawhi Fattouh, speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, would take Arafat’s place as Palestinian Authority president for 60 days, after which new elections would be held.

But Fattouh is little known among Palestinians and has no political base. Therefore it seems increasingly likely that, at least transitionally, the Palestinians will be led by a collective headed by Qurei and Abbas.

Under this arrangement, Qurei would deal with the daily affairs of governing while Abbas handles diplomacy, Palestinian officials said.

From Israel’s point of view, that’s good news: Both of the men have good records of dialogue with Israelis.

Then again, that may prove counterproductive as they work to establish credibility among Palestinians, since it can hurt a leader’s popularity to be considered too close to Israel.

Furthermore, both Abbas and Qurei are seen as part of the “Tunis leadership,” the coterie of Arafat intimates who lived in exile and never really shared the plight of the local Palestinian population. Arafat ran Palestinian affairs from Tunisia between 1982 and 1994.

In addition, Abbas and Qurei could yet find themselves challenged by other powerful and popular elements in the Palestinian Authority. Among them are former Gaza Strip security chief Mohammed Dahlan and Jibril Rajoub, a West Bank security adviser to Arafat.

Both are “insiders” who spent time in Israeli jails in the 1970s and 1980s and have acquired considerable experience negotiating with Israeli leaders over the past decade. Though they no longer are officially in charge of security organs, they remain politically powerful and may emerge as candidates for the Palestinian leadership.

Another important figure is Marwan Barghouti, leader of the Tanzim, the terrorist wing of Arafat’s Fatah faction. Barghouti’s popularity is believed to be second only to Arafat’s among the Palestinians.

But for now Barghouti’s role is limited: He is serving several life sentences in an Israeli jail for involvement in terrorism. He has been on record as supporting Abbas, but the longer he remains in jail the stronger his image becomes as a sort of Palestinian Nelson Mandela.

For the time being, though, it seems that Qurei and Abbas have emerged as consensus leaders. Qurei rushed to Gaza over the weekend for talks with the various Palestinian factions and terrorist groups. The sad truth from an Israeli point of view is that without the cooperation of Hamas, it’s unlikely that any Palestinian government can function with stability.

Under the present state of affairs, stability means implementing the following formula: Give Hamas a piece of the government cake in exchange for a commitment to temporarily hold back anti-Israeli violence.

In what could prove to be a challenge to Qurei, Hamas has said it’s looking for a formal role in Palestinian decision-making.

“This time is very sensitive. It’s a historic time. There is no space for any unilateral decisions,” Hamas spokesman Sami Abu-Zuhri said. “Everyone now is calling to form a united Palestinian leadership. This is a demand of our people.”

Though everyone talks about unity, neither Qurei nor Hamas has made any commitments. For the time being, Hamas is not integrated into the Palestinian Authority, and continues plotting terrorist attacks.

“The resistance continues and will stop only if the occupation ends,” Abu-Zuhri said.

It has become commonplace to say that Arafat did not prepare the stage for his succession, but the situation is more nuanced. Despite ups and downs in relations between Arafat, Qurei and Abbas, in a number of interviews over the past two years Arafat specifically spoke of them as his political heirs.

Though Israel blames Arafat for the collapse of the peace process and the outbreak of the intifada, he left the scene for the two politicians with the richest and most positive records of talks with Israel.

Both are architects of the Oslo Accords. Arafat appointed Abbas as prime minister in April 2003, following heavy pressure from the United States and European Union. It was during Abbas’ term as prime minister that Hamas agreed to a hudna, or ceasefire, though it collapsed after three months.

Abbas met openly with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon — and in Jerusalem, not at the borders of Gaza or in neutral territory around the globe, as Arafat had done.

For his part, Dahlan, who served as Abbas’ defense minister, met regularly with his Israeli counterpart, Shaul Mofaz. Other representatives met with Israeli Justice Minister Yosef “Tommy” Lapid at his office in eastern Jerusalem.

All this ended when Abbas resigned last fall and Qurei took over as prime minister. In the absence of Arafat’s blessing, Qurei dared make no overtures to Israel.

Talks may now resume, but these two men still do not enjoy wide support in the territories.

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