Will there be life after Arafat?

When Yasser Arafat fainted at the Arab League conference in Cairo last weekend he triggered fresh speculation among Palestinians and Israelis about who would replace him if he died. The answer, it became clear, was that he has no clear successor. Patrick Cockburn examines the Palestinian leader's remarkable hold over his people.
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The Independent Online
His aides say robustly that "he is as strong as a horse", but since Yasser Arafat injured his head when his plane crashed in a sandstorm in Libya in 1992 he has suffered from black-outs. In recent weeks, as the stalemate in negotiations with Israel continues, he has looked increasingly haggard and depressed.

If Mr Arafat does die, he has no obvious successor as either Palestinian leader or national symbol. Even at the nadir of his fortunes, after his expulsion from Beirut by Israel in 1982, attempts to replace him have never looked like succeeding.

The only two Palestinian leaders who approached him in prestige have both been assassinated in the last 10 years. Khalil Wazir (Abu Jihad) was killed by an Israeli team in Tunis in 1988. Salah Khalaf (Abu Iyad) was killed three years later by one of his own body guards working for Abu Nidal, the Palestinian guerrilla leader.

Constitutionally Mr Arafat should be replaced - though he himself apparently disputes this - by Ahmed Qureia (Abu Ala'a) the speaker of the Palestinian parliament. There would then be a presidential election. A candidate favoured by the US and Israel is Abu Mazen, the negotiator of the Oslo accords, but neither he nor Abu Ala'a are popular figures.

Mr Arafat would also be difficult to replace because he is the only member of the leadership in exile in Tunis, which returned to Gaza in 1994, who was acceptable to the 2.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

The same division between "outsiders" and "insiders" also probably disqualifies Faisal Husseini and Hanan Ashrawi, both of whom are popular. The most likely development, in the short term, would be a collective leadership of politicians and security men, with neither predominating.

It is not easy to run a resistance movement in the Middle East. The main Iranian opposition to the Iranian regime, for example, has ended up as a catspaw of Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi leader. In contrast the Palestinian leader has avoided becoming anybody's pawn. Though dictatorial, he is not bloodthirsty, never eliminating his Palestinian opponents. Mr Arafat's career has been studded with defeats, but he has usually played with a weaker hand than his opponents. His ability to recuperate stems from his refusal to go against the stream of Palestinian opinion, whatever the urgings of Washington and the rest of the world.