- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 2, 2004

AMMAN, Jordan — He may be in Paris, and there may be many questions regarding his health, but Yasser Arafat is a fighter and likely to keep the obituary writers waiting.

As news of his mysterious ailment broke and he was rushed to the Hopital d’Instruction des Armees de Percy (the Percy Army Teaching Hospital) southwest of Paris, many wondered who eventually would take over as leader of the Palestinians.

Since becoming chief of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) 35 years ago, Mr. Arafat has embodied Palestinian nationalism and the struggle for Palestinian independence.

Transformed from a civil engineer in Kuwait to the Che Guevara of the Arab world, Mr. Arafat has been a figure that Arab and world leaders could not ignore.

Among Palestinians, Mr. Arafat, also known as “Abu Ammar” — a name adopted from Ras Abu Amar, a Palestinian village west of Jerusalem depopulated and destroyed by the Israeli army in 1948 — is the most beloved, as well as hated, figure.

He has been the primary Palestinian decision maker since 1969. And although Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has sought to render the 75-year-old irrelevant and persuaded President Bush to write him off, Mr. Arafat remains the central Palestinian figure with whom they must deal.

Still, Mr. Arafat’s popularity generates resentment because of his continued hold on power. The mayhem in the Gaza Strip in the summer, as well as the Gestapo-like kidnappings and killings, and the July attack by unidentified gunmen on Nabil Amr, a reformist parliamentarian and former information minister, in the West Bank were signs of deepening cracks in the Palestinian leadership.

The events also illustrate that Mr. Arafat’s captivity for the past two years amid Israel’s reoccupation of the West Bank and Gaza has increased the appetite for power among would-be successors.

Now that he is sick and in Paris, many ask whether the Palestinian leader is on his deathbed, and who will succeed him.

On the one hand, Said Aburish, the Palestinian writer of an unflattering biography of Mr. Arafat, said the most important issue is “whether the leadership will stay in his own clique or go to the people in the West Bank and Gaza.”

Initial reports said Mr. Arafat put together a committee made up of Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia (also known as Abu Ala), former Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (also called Abu Mazen) and Salim Zanun, a top PLO official, to take over if he dies.

Some observers have long contended that Mohammed Dahlan, a former internal-security chief in Mr. Arafat’s Fatah movement and a favorite of Israel and the United States, may assume some kind of role in a post-Arafat environment.

But “this is all talk,” said Mustafa Barghouti, secretary of the Palestinian National Initiative, a democratic opposition movement co-founded by the now-deceased Edward Said and other prominent figures.

“There is no such thing as a [transition] committee. What is happening is the application of the law, which means Abu Mazen as secretary of the PLO Executive Committee is running the meetings of the committee, and Abu Ala as prime minister is running the government,” said Mr. Barghouti, adding: “There is no transition of power because Arafat is not incapacitated yet.”

A senior Palestinian official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, also denied that such a committee had been formed. “All those responsible and the institutions are in place, so there is nothing that needs to be created. Everything should fall in place if something happens, God forbid,” the official said.

Asked to comment on Mr. Arafat’s health, the source added: “The president has been for over two weeks dealing with a flu, and this has exhausted him. He needs rest, strength; he needs to eat; and he was fasting all the time. It’s evident that he’s tired from these two weeks. He needs medical care. [But] his condition was better today than yesterday.”

But Mr. Barghouti, who also is a physician and in constant contact with aides accompanying Mr. Arafat in Paris, said: “It’s not confirmed yet, but it’s blood disease, bone-marrow disease. But it’s not confirmed yet — it could be milofibrosis; it could be toxic suppression of the bone marrow; and it could be leukemia. Nobody can say. It’s too early … .”

“I don’t think it’s his … business to do that,” said Mr. Aburish, the biographer, when asked what he thought of the committee being formed.

“Arafat didn’t inherit [Palestinians]. We made him. It’s nonsensical … for the past 100 years things have been run by Haj Amin Al Husseini and Yasser Arafat.” Haj Amin al-Husseini (1893-1974) was appointed grand mufti of Jerusalem by the British in 1921.

Whatever happens to Mr. Arafat in the short run, one thing is certain: The radical group Hamas is likely to try to exploit the situation to its advantage. How it will all fit into the wider context of Israel’s Gaza and West Bank withdrawal plans remains to be seen.

“We are in a measure of chaos, and we have been so for some time,” said Haidar Abdel-Shafi, a respected Palestinian figure who led the Palestinian delegation to the Madrid Peace conference in 1991 and is a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC).

“What’s happened to Abu Ammar I hope will not be an added reason for more chaos. It is high time that political forces should go in together and discuss things in a responsible way and establish priorities. If we are committed to the general welfare of Palestinians, the only way to do things is to leave the matter to the PLC to discuss the situation and reach resolutions democratically.”

Mr. Barghouti, who serves as spokesman for various pro-democracy blocs, including the Palestinian National Initiative, echoed Mr. Abdel-Shafi’s sentiments.

“Our belief is that if something like that (the death of Mr. Arafat) happens, there should be the application of the law — which means the head, the secretary of the council, should take over for 60 days, and then we should have elections.

“I think there is no way of getting any legitimacy for any leader without going through free, democratic elections, and that’s why it’s the duty of the international community to provide us with the necessary support to run these elections. I don’t see any vacuum here, or any problem, unless somebody is dreaming of imposing some kind of a dictator on Palestinians — and this will never work.”

Mr. Aburish was less concerned with discussing who would assume power.

“For months now, I have changed my direction in terms of who the dog is and who the tail is. The Palestinian problem has decided the direction of Middle East politics and is secondary to the East-West Muslim confrontation.

“What happens in Gaza can be considered practically tactical, when you deal with the loss of Iraq. Iraq is much more important than Palestine, and Palestine has practically been lost anyway. I don’t think [the Israeli withdrawal] will determine anyone’s direction, I don’t think it’s going to do anyone any good.”

Hossam Zaki, official spokesman of the Arab League in Cairo, deflected a question about whether there were plans to hold an emergency meeting if Mr. Arafat dies soon.

“The secretary-general wishes Chairman Arafat a quick recovery,” said Mr. Zaki, adding, “We don’t want to delve into these types of issues. The secretary-general believes the focus should be on the health of President Arafat and nothing else.”

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