Arafat ponders his mortality as Israel eyes his successors

Illustration — Jenna Johnson-Hill/Jewish Renaissance Media

JERUSALEM — Something is happening to the man who used to be described as the "cat with seven souls."

Yasser Arafat, 72, president of the Palestinian Authority and "symbol of the Palestinian revolution," is now talking about his own mortality.

Arafat recently told one of the many groups of admirers who visited him in his besieged Ramallah headquarters that he would come to a liberated Jerusalem, either as a victor or a shahid, the Arabic term for martyr.

Then, meeting earlier this month with journalists from the Gulf states and Egypt, Arafat mentioned two of his potential successors — Ahmed Qurei, the speaker of the Palestine legislative council, and Arafat's deputy, Mahmoud Abbas.

The statement won headlines because discussion of life after Arafat is considered taboo in Palestinian society.

Yet the Israeli daily Ha'aretz noted that Arafat merely was reminding his interviewers of the established succession procedures for his dual roles as head of the Palestinian Authority — which governs Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip — and of the Palestine Liberation Organization, which represents Palestinians both there and in the diaspora.

Still, the statement was seen as Arafat's way of responding to growing Israeli pressure to replace him, a demand that has failed to win international backing.

President Bush did not support the idea of replacing Arafat when he met two weeks ago with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in Washington. The forum of foreign ministers of the European Union, which met at the same time, reiterated its recognition of Arafat as the leader of the Palestinian people.

Enjoying a measure of international backing, Arafat was trying to pull the rug from underneath the Israeli demand. The message was: "We are an organized society. It is already quite clear who will replace me if I 'disappear' — but in the meantime, I am the boss."

Indeed, he is.

Surrounded by Israeli tanks, some analysts say Arafat is more popular than during the days when he traveled the world on behalf of the Palestinian people. He receives daily delegations of support from the international community, and many Palestinians draw analogies between Arafat's personal state of siege and the general situation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

A "tent of support" was erected in Gaza, which has become the focus of daily gatherings that draw even leaders of the Hamas opposition.

No wonder the Hamas leaders come: They have been given a virtual green light for their terror attacks against Israelis. Following Israeli air force attacks on Nablus two weeks ago, prison doors were opened to release Hamas prisoners. Mobs that attacked prisons in Jenin and Hebron — encountering no opposition from the guards — released scores more.

As a result, national unity in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is blooming.

Almost everyone who knows Arafat rules out the possibility of his resignation. Uri Avneri, leader of the Israeli far-left group Gush Shalom, said he has never seen Arafat as vibrant and confident as he was on Avneri's visit last month — though Ha'aretz writer Tom Segev, who also attended, came away with an impression of a broken and demoralized Arafat.

Ha'aretz correspondent Danny Rubinstein, a long-time Arafat observer, said Arafat would never resign because leading the Palestinian people is his sole reason for living.

Arafat is married and has a daughter, but he hardly sees his family, which spends most of its time in Paris. He is devoted to his post, generally working late into the night, and reportedly has few interests apart from his job.

It has been this way ever since Arafat formed the Fatah movement in Cairo in 1964. Indeed, for years he even refused to marry, saying he already was wedded — to Palestine.

But what if Arafat disappeared? Israel has pledged not to harm Arafat physically, yet recently Sharon has been more explicit than ever that he would like to see Arafat replaced.

The question became even more relevant after Sharon met two weeks ago with Qurei and Abbas, the two Palestinian architects of the Oslo peace accords. Israel seemed to be signaling that here, finally, were Palestinian leaders it could do business with.

Abbas was asked about his chances of succeeding Arafat. He responded angrily that the matter was not on the agenda, and that the Sharon meeting had taken place with Arafat's full backing.

Arafat was elected president of the Palestinian Authority in general elections in 1996. According to Palestinian election law, once Arafat no longer functions as the president, the speaker of the legislative council — currently Qurei — would take over for an interim period of two months, followed by general elections.

Then the real race begins. Contrary to Israeli wishes, neither Qurei nor Abbas enjoys widespread support among Palestinians.

They are perceived as the "Tunis leadership," a group of oligarchs who grew wealthy during decades in exile and who have never shared the plight of the local population.

They also would face the strong opposition of Hamas, the fundamentalist organization that has gained considerable support since the intifada began nearly a year and a half ago.

In Israel, indeed, it has been customary for years to adopt Foreign Minister Shimon Peres' thesis that "whoever doesn't want Arafat will get Hamas." Yet Hamas activists themselves say the organization is not structured for a head-on confrontation with the Palestinian Authority and the main PLO party, Fatah.

Hamas' main drawback in a hypothetical election is that it has no stock in Palestinian Authority bureaucracy. The authority provides jobs for thousands of families, who have a vested interest in keeping Hamas out of power.

On the ground in the territories, the real power belongs to the various paramilitary and security groups. The two most conspicuous security chiefs also are considered potential leadership candidates — Mohammad Dahlan of Gaza and Jibril Rajoub of the West Bank.

Both are "veterans" of Israeli jails from the 1970s and '80s, have considerable experience in dealing with the Israeli authorities over the past eight years and are regarded as pragmatists in a possible peace deal with Israel.

Both are considered likely candidates for the throne, although, for obvious reasons, they have never said so openly. However, last week there were media reports of a heated argument between Rajoub and Arafat, saying that Arafat waved his pistol at Rajoub and slapped him during a Feb. 11 meeting in Ramallah. Two days later, Rajoub denied any conflict with the Palestinian president, calling him the symbol of the national struggle.

Two other potential candidates are Marwan Barghouti, the leader of Fatah's Tanzim militias, and Sari Nusseibeh, the PLO official in charge of Jerusalem.

Until the outbreak of the intifada, Barghouti was a shadowy figure and supporter of the Oslo accords. Since September 2000, however, Barghouti's men have taken a leading role in terrorism.

"If the Israelis can attack us in Ramallah," he often says, "than we have the legitimate right to attack the Israelis in Tel Aviv."

Nusseibeh, scion of an influential Jerusalem family, has emerged on the national stage in recent months with moderate statements urging a settlement with Israel and saying that Palestinians will have to forgo the "right" of refugees to return to their former homes in Israel.

That has made him the darling of Israeli leftists eager to prove that there still is someone to talk to on the Palestinian side, though others consider Nusseibeh too effete and intellectual to gain support on the streets.

In fact, on Feb. 12 there were reports, denied by Nusseibeh, that he resigned his post amid sharp differences with Arafat, namely the "right of return" issue.

Other names on the list of potential leaders include Nabil Sha'ath, a former businessman and now the authority's economic development minister, and Yasser Abed Rabbo, the Palestinian minister of information.