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News Analysis: Arafat’s Brush with Death Confirms He is a Survivor with No Successor

April 10, 1992
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Yasir Arafat’s 13-hour disappearance this week has taught some sobering lessons.

It made clear that the 62-year-old Palestine Liberation Organization chairman is indeed the indisputable leader of the Palestinian people.

It also showed that far too much authority and prestige has been vested in his person, with no adequate political apparatus to fill the gap should he suddenly depart.

Had Arafat not survived the crash landing of his plane in the Libyan desert Tuesday, the leaderless PLO would have been thrown into a bitter struggle for succession.

More ominous, especially from Israel’s point of view, would have been the fate of the precarious Middle East peace process.

For all of his deviousness, ambiguity and evasive tactics, Arafat has been the shield behind which a Palestinian delegation has been able to engage in dialogue with Israel since last October.

That is because of his grip on the hearts and minds of Palestinians in both the administered territories and the so-called diaspora.

There are powerful forces arrayed against the peace talks with Israel, within as well as outside the PLO.

The external threats come chiefly from the growing popularity of the Moslem fundamentalists, represented by Hamas and the Islamic Jihad.

Secular radicals, such as George Habash of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and Nayef Hawatmeh of the Democratic Front, advocate armed struggle against Israel from under the PLO umbrella.

Even Farouk Kaddoumi, head of the PLO’s political department, opposes the peace process, but he defers to Arafat.

Without Arafat’s support, the local leaders of the Palestinian peace camp — Faisal Husseini, Sari Nusseibeh and Hanan Ashrawi — probably could not keep the negotiations alive.

Arafat’s death would have plunged the PLO into a bitter, probably violent power struggle.

There is no heir apparent to Arafat. His former top lieutenants, Khalil al-Wazir (known as Abu Jihad) and Salah Khalaf (known as Abu Iyyad) have been killed, probably by the Israelis.

The second echelon, including Kaddoumi and lesser known figures such as Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and Khaled al-Hassan, are not attractive alternatives.

The incident has also proven once again that Arafat has a remarkable knack for surviving even crises beyond his control. Nevertheless, reports from Libya on Thursday indicated that Arafat may have suffered more serious injuries than the scrapes and bruises for which he was hospitalized.

The PLO leader may now be more aware of his own mortality. He may realize that if he wants his political line to dominate the Palestinian nationalist movement in the future, he had better start grooming his successors.

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