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Middle East: With Arafat Gone, What Next For The Palestinian Leadership?

Yasser Arafat is gravely ill in a Paris hospital. The top Islamic cleric in the Palestinian territories, Sheikh Taissir Dayut Tamimi, said today that he has been at Arafat's bedside and that the Palestinian leader is "in a difficult situation, but he is still alive." With Arafat's condition worsening, attention is turning to what will happen after his death. What is next for the Palestinians -- and for the peace process itself?

Prague, 10 November 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Yasser Arafat is not yet dead, but his funeral arrangements have already been decided. Top Arafat aide Saeb Erekat spoke to reporters today in Ramallah about the situation.

"It's decided that in case of the president's death, the burial site will be the Muqata [compound] in Ramallah. Our Egyptian brothers suggested that [Arafat could] lie in Cairo," Erekat said.

Distinctly less certain, however, is who will succeed the Palestinian leader in his various jobs and what effect, if any, his death will have on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Already, some of Arafat's powers have been transferred to Prime Minister Ahmad Qureia, also known as Abu Ala, and former Prime Minister Mahmud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen.

And the Palestinian leadership agreed today that parliament speaker Rawhi Fattuh would serve as acting head of the Palestinian Authority if Arafat dies -- until presidential elections are held within 60 days, as called for by Palestinian law.

But analysts say holding such elections could be difficult. Yossi Mekelberg, with London's Chatham House think tank, said that even if the various factions heed recent calls for unity, any election is likely to be delayed. "I have my doubts. I don't think it would be feasible to hold elections within 60 days, not under the current situation. More sensible would be to call for an interim government, a transition government that will negotiate and hold elections within six to eight months under international supervision of the United Nations, the United States, the European Union and so on and so forth," Mekelberg said. "Don't forget that there are currently in the West Bank more than 600 Israeli checkpoints. How can you campaign?"
"The people like Abu Ala and Abu Mazen would be loved, of course, by the Israelis and the Americans and would, in a sense, be acquiesced by the Palestinian population, but they would never get genuine positive support from the Palestinian street."

Arafat has never chosen a successor or successors to take over the Palestinian Authority, the Palestinian Liberation Organization, or his political party, Al-Fatah. But likely candidates are emerging, prominent among them Mahmud Abbas and Ahmad Qureia.

Ilan Pappe, who teaches political science at Haifa University and heads the Emil Touma Institute for Palestinian Studies, told RFE/RL: "Abu Mazen and Abu Ala are likely -- at least in the initial phase after the elections -- to be holding the same positions they held before the elections. That's my guess. Abu Mazen is a kind of real successor to Arafat in the functions that Arafat had held, and Abu Ala is a prime minister who probably now has more authority than he had under Arafat. It is quite reasonable to imagine that these two would be at the center of power in the first phase after the elections."

Both men are seen as moderates and acceptable to Israel. But as Mideast expert Gerd Nonneman noted, that fact undercuts their support at home. "The people like Abu Ala and Abu Mazen would be loved, of course, by the Israelis and the Americans and would, in a sense, be acquiesced by the Palestinian population, but they would never get genuine positive support from the Palestinian street. The trouble with that is it makes it harder to make concessions. They'd be easily written off as traitors and so on. We've already seen [that] what these men said carried little weight. It wasn't these men who managed to get cease-fires with radical groups. That was Marwan Barghouti," Nonneman said.

Barghouti, the former head of Al-Fatah in the West Bank, is one of the most popular Palestinian figures. However, he's all but ruled out as a candidate to succeed Arafat. He's serving five life sentences in an Israeli jail.

Another question that will be raised by Arafat's passing is the impact, if any, on the stalled Mideast peace process. Israel has refused to deal with Arafat in recent years, saying he has done little to crack down on militant groups responsible for attacks on Israelis.

His replacement by a moderate could, the argument goes, give a boost to peace efforts. It could also raise expectations of renewed engagement in the Mideast by the United States, which has also sidelined Arafat.

But others argue that Arafat's replacement is unlikely to make much difference. More important, Nonneman said, are Israel's actions -- including Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to withdraw Jewish settlers from Gaza and parts of the West Bank.

"There is, in theory, a better opportunity simply because Arafat turned out to be a bit of a control freak in terms of the Palestinian Authority and negotiations. With the implementation of the withdrawal from Gaza, we can hope that some movement is given to the overall political scene. And in that context, if Israeli policies on the ground are lightened a touch, then there will be a small window of opportunity for a more pragmatic, better negotiator as leader of the Palestinians to make a difference," Nonneman said.