- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 11, 2004

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Palestinian officials said yesterday that Rauhi Fattouh — the parliament speaker unknown even to many Palestinians — would succeed Yasser Arafat as president of the Palestinian Authority temporarily when the ailing leader dies.

The decision is in line with a constitutional stipulation tapping the speaker as provisional leader for 60 days, beginning with the announcement of the leader’s death, until elections can be held.

Mr. Fattouh’s appointment underlines the determination of the Palestinian leadership to have a lawful and orderly succession and avoid the anarchic power struggle feared by many.

In Washington, President Bush said he thought there would be “an opening for peace” once a new Palestinian leadership was in place.

“When that happens, and I believe that it’s going to happen … the United States of America will be more than willing to help build the institutions for a free society so that the Palestinians can have their own state,” he said after meeting with NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer.

“The vision is two states, a Palestinian state and Israel living side by side in peace. I think we’ve got a chance to do that. I look forward to being involved in that process.”

An Arafat loyalist without leadership ambitions, Mr. Fattouh is seen as a convenient place-holder until a vote can be held. He is not expected to challenge would-be leaders such as former Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas or Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia.

“As president, [Mr. Fattouh] will just have authority to make elections in 60 days. He can’t do more than that,” said Hafez Barghouti, editor of Al-Hayat Al-Jadidah, the official organ of Mr. Arafat’s Fatah party. “It is our chance to prove to the world that the Palestinians want democracy.”

If the Palestinians are unable to organize elections within two months, legislators are expected to pass a new law that will install Mr. Abbas as temporary president.

Mr. Fattouh is a former Fatah student organizer who rose through the party ranks, establishing a reputation as one who follows the rules and avoids conflict.

Elected to the legislature in 1996 from the Gaza Strip town of Rafah, Mr. Fattouh managed the daily affairs of the parliament as its secretary-general for most of his tenure.

He was elevated to parliament speaker in March after Mr. Arafat deposed a legislator who wanted to investigate suspected corruption in the Palestinian Authority. Nevertheless, the prominent post neither raised his profile among the Palestinian public nor bolstered his strength within the party.

“Nobody believes that Rauhi Fattouh is up to the post,” said Said Zeedani, a political science professor at Al-Quds University. “This is the main problem they have to deal with.”

To be sure, Mr. Fattouh won’t possess nearly the same powers as Mr. Arafat. The gravely ill Palestinian leader will be succeeded by Mr. Abbas as head of the Palestine Liberation Organization — legally the supreme Palestinian political body — while Mr. Qureia will get control of the armed forces as the new head of the Palestinian security Cabinet.

And yet, one colleague noted that Mr. Fattouh helped mend a year-old rift between Mr. Arafat and Mr. Abbas in recent weeks — displaying a talent for conciliation that could prove critical if Mr. Arafat’s expected death gives way to simmering rivalries within his Fatah faction.

Mr. Arafat’s condition continued to deteriorate yesterday at a military hospital in Paris. With the longtime leader suffering kidney and liver failure and a brain hemorrhage, officials made it clear that they had no hope for a recovery.

They said they planned to hold a funeral ceremony in Cairo, which would be attended by foreign dignitaries, and then fly Mr. Arafat’s body to Ramallah to be buried outside the headquarters where he was confined by Israel for almost three years.

Israel’s security Cabinet yesterday gave its consent to the plan, dropping its insistence that Mr. Arafat be buried in the Gaza Strip. Ramallah emerged as a compromise site when it became clear that Israel would not permit him to be buried in Jerusalem as the Palestinians initially had hoped.

In Paris, the senior Islamic cleric in the West Bank, Taisser Bayod Tamimi, recited passages from the Koran at Mr. Arafat’s bedside before telling reporters that the life-support machines would not be switched off.

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