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MIDDLE EAST: After Arafat

Author: Sharon Otterman
November 15, 2004
This publication is now archived.

Who is Yasir Arafat's likely successor?

Experts say there is no Palestinian politician who can fully step into the role of Yasir Arafat, the ailing president of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). No one currently considered in the running for either post rivals Arafat's global profile or his standing among Palestinians. Arafat "is seen as an incarnation of the national struggle and even the national identity of Palestinians, and this is the source of his great influence and power. There is no other person who could replace that function he serves in the consciousness of the Palestinian people," says Henry Siegman, director of the U.S.-Middle East Project at the Council on Foreign Relations. As a result, Arafat's death or incapacitation will create a leadership vacuum that will be filled--at least in the short term--by a number of politicians or organizations.

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Who is in line to take over Arafat's formal powers?

According to the Palestinian Basic Law of 2003, if the PA president dies or is unable to fulfill his duties, he is temporarily replaced by the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, the Authority's parliament. The current speaker is Rawhi Fattouh, a little-known politician who experts say is unlikely to exert much power if he ascends to the post. The law also says that elections for a permanent president must be held within 60 days of the sitting president being sidelined.

Has this formal process taken effect?

No. Although Arafat left his West Bank compound and was flown to Paris for medical treatment October 29, Palestinian leaders have not yet formally declared that Arafat will be unable to return to his duties. "They are keeping up the pretense that he is coming back, and there has been no official sign from Arafat or the leadership that he is not," Siegman says. As a result, the PA is functioning with a different interim leadership arrangement that was approved by Arafat before his incapacitation.

What is this interim arrangement?

Two men are heading up the Palestinian government in Arafat's absence. Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei is in charge of day-to-day governance and the National Security Council. His predecessor, former Prime Minster Mahmoud Abbas, has taken over as the chief of the PLO and of Arafat's political party, Fatah. Palestinian leaders have held near-constant meetings since Arafat's departure to discuss the transition and try to allay public fears of disorder. On November 4 in Gaza City, representatives of 13 Palestinian factions--including militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad--met to proclaim their unity during Arafat's illness. "For now, there is a consensus that Palestinians must maintain a sense of unity and collaboration. But the big question is what happens once [Arafat] dies," Siegman says.

Who stands to benefit from a leadership change?

After Arafat's death, Qurei, also known as Abu Ala, would likely continue to head the Palestinian government. Experts say he may have more leeway to exercise the full extent of his powers. Arafat, who has led the PLO since 1969 and has been president of the Palestinian Authority since 1996, has zealously guarded his authority and has never appointed a deputy or groomed a successor. From his compound in Ramallah, where he has been confined since 2001, he frequently clashed with Qurei and Abbas over reforming the Palestinian security services and cracking down on PA corruption. Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, is secretary general of the executive committee of the PLO. According to that organization's bylaws, Abbas would continue to head the PLO after Arafat's death.

Are Abbas and Qurei rivals?

To an extent, and it seems likely the two are heading for a power struggle, some experts say. Even a joint leadership arrangement may be unable to ensure a smooth transition and the election of a new president. Neither Abbas nor Qurei--both of whom have long operated in Arafat's shadow--is considered a popular figure among the Palestinian people.

How much electoral experience do Palestinians have?

The Palestinians' only legislative and presidential elections were held in 1996, two years after the launch of limited self-rule as part of the Oslo peace accords. Voters chose Arafat as president and an 88-member Legislative Council. There are a variety of reasons no elections have been held since, experts say, including ongoing Israeli-Palestinian clashes, a lack of international support for elections, and Arafat's desire to maintain his hold on power. Palestinian officials announced in early September that they planned to hold simultaneous presidential, parliamentary, and municipal polls in spring 2005, but the details of the electoral schedule have yet to be worked out. If Arafat dies, "I think the elections are something that will remain up in the air," says Steven A. Cook, the next generation fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Who are the other contenders for Arafat's mantle?

According to opinion polls, the second most popular political figure after Arafat among Palestinians is Marwan Barghouti, also a leader in Fatah. But Barghouti is currently serving consecutive life sentences in an Israeli jail for involvement in terrorism. Barghouti was a leader of the first intifada against Israel from 1987-93, and played a key role in the second intifada. He was also among the first Palestinian leaders to publicly criticize Arafat for corruption in the Palestinian Authority. In his 40s, Barghouti represents a younger generation of leaders. Arafat is 75, Qurei, 66, and Abbas, 69.

Current and former heads of various Palestinian security services may also vie for power. Among the best-known are Mohammed Dahlan, the former security chief in the Gaza Strip, and Jibril Rajoub, a rival to Dahlan and former head of security in the West Bank. Both men are in their 40s and have lived in the Palestinian territories all their lives--unlike the senior leaders, most of whom spent decades in exile.

Finally, radical groups such as Hamas pose a serious political challenge to the continued dominance of Arafat's Fatah party. Hamas has gained strength in both the West Bank and Gaza since the start of the second intifada, and some analysts consider it Gaza's most potent political force. Ismail Haniyeh, a Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip, called October 29 for preparations for general elections in the event of Arafat's death and the "formation of a united national leadership" that includes Hamas, according to the Associated Press.

What are the chances Arafat's absence will incite violence?

Some analysts believe the period immediately after Arafat's death will be marked by continued efforts at Palestinian unity. "I don't think there's going to be factional violence among the Palestinians to start. There's going to be some kind of collective leadership to rule in the name of Arafat's legacy," Cook says. But these arrangements could break down, leading to infighting and violence, he adds.

Another potential cause of bloodshed: Palestinians mourning Arafat's death might lash out at Israeli military forces, sparking an armed confrontation. Continued violence between armed groups loyal to various Palestinian security forces could also pose a problem. Clashes and showdowns between these groups occur frequently in Gaza, and lawlessness and gang rule are becoming common in the West Bank city of Nablus, U.N. Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Terje Roed-Larsen wrote in his July report to the United Nations Security Council. "For the past year, there has been a very serious breakdown of authority in the PA and the emergence of what can loosely be called warlords. So there is a real danger [of violence]," says Siegman. "One could assume, and one should assume, that some level of internal violence is going to take place," Palestinian political analyst Ali Jarbawi told the Los Angeles Times.

Will Arafat's incapacitation or death affect Israeli Prime Minister Sharon's settlement withdrawal plan?

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's controversial plan to unilaterally remove all 21 Israeli settlements from Gaza and four from the West Bank--passed by the Israeli Knesset October 26--could be delayed or amended if Arafat dies, experts say. From the Israeli political left, there may be pressure to scrap the plan and return to a comprehensive peace process. The reason: Sharon's chief justification for taking unilateral action--the lack of a perceived "partner for peace" on the Palestinian side--could change once Arafat is gone. From the perspective of the Israeli right wing, which strongly opposes the withdrawal of settlements, any instability that follows Arafat's death could increase pressure to delay the plan. "From Sharon's standpoint, it is preferable for the next stages of his plan to be carried out unilaterally, with a weakened Arafat peering out from the Muqata [Arafat's Ramallah compound] at the unfolding events," Zeev Schiff, the chief political analyst at Israeli newspaper Haaretz, wrote in an October 29 column.