Thursday, October 28, 2004

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Ailing Palestinian President Yasser Arafat prepared to fly to a Paris hospital yesterday for treatment of a serious blood disorder, leaving a compound where he has been a virtual prisoner for more than two years and entrusting the Palestinian Authority to no clear successor.

Too weak to stand on his own after weeks of an undiagnosed illness, Mr. Arafat was to travel to Amman, Jordan, by helicopter early today and fly to Paris on Sunday.

“His condition is critical and he needs rest and medical care,” said Arafat aide Nabil Abu Rudeineh. “His fate is in the hands of his doctors.”

Israel gave assurances that the Palestinian leader would be allowed to return, but the dramatic deterioration in Mr. Arafat’s health this week prompted inevitable concern over who would take charge in his absence.

Mr. Arafat’s physicians disclosed that he was suffering from a low count of blood platelets but said they were not sure of the cause.

In an attempt to dispel fears that Mr. Arafat was on his deathbed, Palestinian officials released a video yesterday showing their leader sitting upright in a warm-up suit with a tight blue hat replacing his trademark keffiyeh, a black-and-white checkered head scarf.

“President Arafat is a man who is, as we say, larger than life in many ways,” Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi told CNN. “I doubt there will be any one person who will be able to take [over] not just his symbolic stature, but his functions as well.”

Israeli assurances that the Palestinian leader could return marked the suspension of a threat to expel Mr. Arafat permanently from the Palestinian territories.

After aides said earlier this week that Mr. Arafat was suffering from a bout with the flu, the dramatic deterioration in his health Wednesday night spurred concern about a leadership vacuum among the Palestinians if he dies or becomes unable to govern.

In the four decades Mr. Arafat has dominated the Palestinian national movement — surviving assassination attempts, Israeli-imposed isolation, and the current chaos that has weakened his autonomous government. He has not cultivated any heirs.

As politicians from Mr. Arafat’s Fatah movement met to discuss running the government in his absence, there was speculation that the battle for succession already had begun.

The Palestinian leader briefly lost consciousness Wednesday night, and a team of Egyptian, Tunisian and Jordanian doctors was called in as his condition deteriorated.

Aides said his condition improved yesterday, and that he said prayers and ate cereal. But other reports said he slept most of the day and didn’t recognize visitors.

Yesterday, Mr. Arafat’s wife, Suha, who has been living in Paris and has not set foot on Palestinian territory in more than four years, arrived in Ramallah to be with her husband.

In Israel, there were signs that Mr. Arafat’s exit from the center stage of Palestinian politics, even if only temporarily, could alter the dynamics of Arab-Israeli peacemaking.

“As long as Arafat is in the picture, there is no one to talk to,” Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said in an interview with Israeli television. “If there is another leadership, that depends on them.”

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