Arafat reportedly names trusted aide as successor

LONDON — Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat appears to have answered the $64,000 question: Who will be the Palestinian Authority leader's successor?

The answer, according to the authoritative London-based newsletter Foreign Report, is Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, Arafat's deputy and a key player in the Palestinians' Oslo negotiating team.

Abbas was born in a village in what is now northern Israel and fled with his family in 1948. He was a founding member of Arafat's Fatah movement in Kuwait and now lives in an opulent villa in the Gaza Strip.

The news was apparently conveyed to President Clinton by Arafat himself when he visited the White House last month for talks on ways to break the current stalemate in the Middle East peace process.

This is the first time Arafat is known to have spoken openly of his successor — certainly to a foreign leader — and while the report was denied by some Palestinian officials, senior Arafat aides declined to comment.

Basing itself on American sources, the newsletter quotes Arafat telling Clinton: "When my time will come, I will be replaced by my brother, Abu Mazen."

In the course of their conversation, Arafat is also quoted as saying: "We can never give up. The Palestinian struggle will continue and the struggle will carry on for generations if it will be needed.

"As far as I am concerned, the end of the process will be the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, and in order to achieve this goal I am willing to be flexible here or there as long as I know that the result will be this one," he said, meaning an independent state.

"We have agreed to a division of historical Palestine, but we will never accept a division of the West Bank or give up part of it."

There has been widespread speculation about Arafat's failing health, but the newsletter reports that he received a clean bill of health from a recent checkup at a U.S. hospital. Aides, however, say his mood is bleak.

In another development, Palestinian sources are reported as saying the Palestinian Authority has been buying huge quantities of cement. The most likely explanation is that the authority is building underground shelters and tunnels, similar to those that they built in Beirut.