Arafats quiverings should have the West trembling

The trembling hands, quivering lips and glazed eyes of Yasser Arafat have been attracting world attention, as it is becoming ever clearer that the chairman of the Palestinian Authority is suffering from a debilitating neurological disease. Given the state of relations between Israel and the Palestinians, and the accompanying danger that instability in the top post of the Palestinian Authority could trigger violence, this is indeed a matter of concern.

The truth is that Arafat's true medical condition is a well-guarded secret. He himself dismisses speculation regarding his health as an Israeli plot and ascribes his shaking demeanor to "lack of sleep." But health experts viewing his public appearances assert that he is suffering from much more than an occasional night of tossing and turning.

The conventional wisdom is that he is either ill with Parkinson's disease or another medical condition related to the blows he received to the head during a plane crash while flying from Sudan to Libya in April 1992.

In either case, the symptoms, which will only get worse with time, could include slowness of speech, lack of motor control and reduced cognitive abilities, including limitations in memory and concentration. No national leader can continue to discharge his duties under such conditions.

In a properly functioning democracy, Arafat would long ago have been required to either provide convincing medical evidence of good health or step down.

But the Palestinian Authority is far from a democracy, which is precisely where the problem lies. World leaders, such as German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and French President Jacques Chirac are reportedly reacting to reports of Arafat's health difficulties by urging that the peace process be speeded up as much as possible, while Arafat is still capable of signing an agreement.

This approach is too narrowly focused. The issues regarding the future of the Palestinian Authority are more consequential than any single round of talks, because an agreement concluded with Arafat that is not honored by his successors will not be worth much. How the succession to Arafat is effected is as important as who succeeds him.

One of the clearest indications that Arafat is indeed ailing is the jockeying for position evident among potential successors. Some of it is remarkable, because this is not the equivalent of members of the Likud faction in the Knesset discussing a possible breakaway. Arafat has maintained control over the PLO for more than 30 years by deviously and skillfully manipulating potential rivals, sometimes in the most brutal manner. Nevertheless, there are clear camps emerging in the so-far subdued succession struggle. They can roughly be divided into those who are pushing for a "legally legitimate" succession and those who are more likely to take control through the barrel of a gun.

Even if Arafat manages to survive for a long time, the results of the current struggles could have important implications regarding the balance of power in the Palestinian Authority. The more democratic-minded camp is attempting to strengthen the position of the elected council. It is insisting that the Palestinian Basic Law be followed in the event of Arafat's death or incapacitation so that Ahmed Qurei, the speaker of the council, would automatically be acting Palestinian Authority chairman for 60 days until new elections can be held.

Another proposed reform is separating the positions of chairman of the PLO and chairman of the Palestinian Authority. This may seem like an obscure distinction, but it is an important one. The Palestinian Authority is an autonomous entity, at least nominally ruled by laws and bound by international standards and agreements. The PLO is seemingly not bound by any rules.

Arafat has often made use of the blurring between the two to get around constraints he is uncomfortable with, be they limits on Palestinian Authority diplomatic contacts or its commitments of accountability toward donor nations. The fact that the PLO is still around has facilitated a good deal of the corruption that has marked Palestinian self-rule, and separating the PLO and Palestinian Authority would be a step toward cleaner government.

No less interesting is the source of some of these demands: Farouk Kaddoumi, the head of the PLO's political department in Tunis, has been out of the headlines for years but is one of those pushing for reforms. In fact, some prominent Palestinian politicians recently flew to Tunis to confer with Kaddoumi on these matters.

This has led to intriguing speculation that Kaddoumi is serving as the point man in a coalition of Palestinians forming to block a possible military takeover of the Palestinian Authority by strongmen Jibril Rajoub and Mohammed Dahlan. The public campaign to accuse Rajoub of being a traitor may also be related to this struggle. A good deal of activity is apparently taking place that could have far-reaching consequences.

Israel and the West need to keep an eye on these developments. A democratic-leaning Palestinian Authority with a legitimate leadership is more likely to reach and observe agreements with Israel than an unstable one ruled by a military dictator. Although it is a truism that nations have the right to select their own leadership, there are also legitimate tools countries can use to encourage pro-democracy movements in other nations.

Those truly concerned by Arafat's tremors and shakes would do well to consider using some of those tools with regard to the Palestinian Authority.