- The Washington Times - Friday, November 12, 2004

After 13 days in a coma, Yasser Arafat, president of the Palestinian Authority, died in a Paris area hospital, early Thursday at age 75.

Mr. Arafat leaves behind a somewhat shattered legacy and no definite successor. Mr. Arafat was instrumental in establishing Fatah, the mainline Palestinian resistance organization, and headed the Palestine Liberation Organization, the umbrella organization under which a number of splinter factions were grouped in their struggle for an independent Palestinian state.

Through his amazing ability to coerce, convince, charm and compel — sometimes both friend and foe — Mr. Arafat has managed to keep the Palestinian cause alive all these years, despite persistent setbacks such as his expulsion from the Jordanian capital, Amman, in 1970 and the Lebanese capital, Beirut, in 1982.

History will find that Mr. Arafat’s greatest shortcoming was his failure to nominate a leader able to replace him at the appropriate moment. The void his death creates leaves behind a precarious political situation in the Palestinian territories. Though somewhat unlikely, analysts fear a power grab by Islamist groups — Hamas and Islamic Jihad — could lead to civil war. Which is why a smooth transition is of paramount importance to the future of the Palestinian Authority. There are, in fact, few candidates on the slate, and each one comes with baggage of some sort.

Mr. Arafat’s death leaves three different positions vacant; president of the PA, chairman of the PLO and leader of Fatah.

Mahmoud Abbas, or Abu Mazen, the man who at one time Mr. Arafat chose as a likely replacement, and who became the first Palestinian prime minister, fell out of favor when he disagreed with Mr. Arafat over the use of violence and weapons in the intifada. Abu Mazen is the only surviving member of the “founding fathers” of Fatah, the largest and most prominent of the Palestinian resistance organizations. Since Mr. Arafat was hospitalized in Paris, Abu Mazen, however, has re-emerged as a potential replacement. Shortly after Mr. Arafat was admitted to hospital, Abu Mazen assumed leadership of the PLO.

Abu Mazen, many say, lacks the history and the charisma of Mr. Arafat, and he is not widely accepted by the Palestinian street. But stranger things have happened in politics.

Ahmed Qureia, the current prime minister continued to administer the day-to-day affairs of the PA after Mr. Arafat became ill. If an election were to be held in the Palestinian territories today, Mr. Qureia, a long-time PLO bureaucrat with no popular support, and even less charisma, would not stand much of a chance.

The next potential candidates to replace Mr. Arafat come from what is referred to as “the new guard,” those known as the “insiders,” the ones who grew up in the occupied territories. They differentiate themselves from Mr. Arafat’s group who came into political maturity while in exile in Jordan, Lebanon and Tunisia.

Among them are Jibril Rajoub, Hani el Hassan, Nabil Shaath, Gaza Security Chief Mohammad Dahlan (preferred by the United States) and Marwan Barghouti, who now is in an Israeli jail on terrorism charges.

Mr. Barghouti, who until his arrest was the West Bank preventive security chief, had tremendous power and popularity, including close links to the CIA. In a recent poll, he ranked second only to Mr. Arafat.

There is one snag. Mr. Barghouti is serving five consecutive life sentences, plus 40 years, in Israel for involvement in shooting attacks and terrorism-related activities. If he is elected to replace Mr. Arafat as president of the PA, it would create a political dilemma for Israel and set up an interesting international legal precedence: What happens if a man accused of terrorism and serving time finds himself elected president?

In the meantime, uncertainty would create further divisions among Palestinians. According to a number of sources, Palestinian Authority law would have the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, Rawhi Fattouh, step in as interim president for 60 days, until elections are held. However, 60 days without leadership in the Palestinian territories would create a dangerous void.

The PLO could overrule this law and appoint Abu Mazen in accordance with a rumored letter from Mr. Arafat to the former premier, naming him successor. In keeping with his secretive style, Mr. Arafat would have played his cards close to his chest to the very end.

Mr. Arafat’s major drawback was he never was able to make the difficult transition from the guerrilla leader he was in Amman and Beirut, to the statesman he should have become once he got to Ramallah. He leaves behind a tattered territory in the West Bank and Gaza, an economy in shambles, peace talks indefinitely shelved, a deplorable security situation, high unemployment and all the other trappings of a failed state. And even more distressing for the Palestinians, he leaves no clear line of succession. The leader is dead. Long live whom?

Claude Salhani is international editor of United Press International.

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