- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 25, 2002

Palestinians reacting to President Bush's call for a new leadership yesterday were skeptical that any challengers to Yasser Arafat, the current leader, would come forward as a result of the U.S. demand.

But although no clear candidate to replace Mr. Arafat has emerged and he certainly has never named one several figures have achieved enough prominence among the Palestinians in the past few years to be considered as alternatives.

Marwan Barghouti, the leader of Mr. Arafat's Fatah movement in the West Bank, who has been in an Israeli jail since April, is the front-runner in the most recent poll with a 19 percent approval rating.

"He is one of the 'young guards,' and if the Israelis are smart, they will release him," said Khalil Shakaki, head of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, which conducted the April poll.

"Barghouti can play a significant role, but only in a process that would include Arafat and gradually marginalize him," Mr. Shakaki, who is visiting Washington, said in an interview after Mr. Bush's speech yesterday.

He said the president issued an "impossible demand" that would be viewed by the Palestinians as an interference in their domestic affairs, and even people who have in the past intended to challenge Mr. Arafat would now be behind him.

"It's true his popularity of 35 percent is low and there are a lot of complaints, but the Palestinians won't agree to the United States and Israel dictating their leader's removal," Mr. Shakaki said.

The "young guard" is in a favorable position to rally support, but they are not likely to respond to Mr. Bush's call either, Mr. Shakaki said.

Two Palestinian security chiefs, Mohammed Dahlan in Gaza and Jibril Rajoub in the West Bank, both centrists, also are mentioned as future Palestinian leaders.

But Mr. Rajoub's popularity plummeted during the Israeli incursion when he surrendered his hilltop compound in Ramallah and handed over Palestinian militants wanted by the Israelis.

Mr. Dahlan, described by some Western diplomats as impressive, has publicly disagreed with Mr. Arafat on the increasingly violent direction the uprising has taken. He twice quit his post and then returned, most recently before the Israelis confined Mr. Arafat to Ramallah.

Mr. Dahlan and Mr. Rajoub also are said to be involved in a bitter quarrel, with Mr. Rajoub accusing Mr. Dahlan of trying to take over control of the security forces in the West Bank.

Another potential contender for the leadership, who has announced he would challenge Mr. Arafat in the next election, is Abdul Sattar Qassem, a political science professor at Al-Najah University, a bastion of the militant Islamic group Hamas in Nablus.

He says he was arrested four times and spent two years in Israeli jails for supporting the first Palestinian intifada in the 1980s. He also claims to have been jailed three times, for a total of eight months, by the Palestinian Authority for criticizing Mr. Arafat.

"Qassem is very eccentric and the most marginal of all possible alternatives," Mr. Shakaki said.

The poll of Mr. Shakaki's center showed that 95 percent of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza supported firing the entire Palestinian Authority Cabinet; 91 percent favored fundamental changes in the government; and 83 percent wanted elections in the next few months.

The Bush administration has repeatedly said that Mr. Arafat, who was allowed by Israel to return to the occupied territories eight years ago and was elected Palestinian Authority president in 1996, has failed to provide leadership.

Administration officials have said that one of the reasons the United States refused to join Israel's call for his replacement until yesterday was the lack of a viable alternative.

The members of the so-called "old guard," such as Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, one of the original negotiators of the breakthrough 1993 Oslo accords, owe their legitimacy to Mr. Arafat, Palestinian officials and analysts say.

Mr. Abbas broke ground in the mid-1990s by becoming the first leading Palestinian to accept Israeli claims to parts of Jerusalem that had been captured by Israel in the 1967 war.

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