Aides deny Arafat heart attack report, but succession remains far from clear

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The Independent Online

Yasser Arafat's office rushed to deny reports that he had had a heart attack, but the question on everyone's mind was obvious. Who will take over as Palestinian leader if Mr Arafat dies? Unfortunately, the answer is anything but obvious.

Visibly thinner than usual, and unable to stand up for long, Mr Arafat does not appear to be in the best of health. When he recently disappeared for a week, his office said it was just a bad case of flu. Now his weight loss is being attributed to a stomach infection.

If he should die, the succession is far from clear.

Under the Palestinian constitution, the new Prime Minister, Ahmed Qureia, would take over as caretaker for two months, in his role as speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council. But Mr Qureia does not have enough support to be considered as a long-term replacement. The popular choice is Marwan Barghouti. But Mr Barghouti is in an Israeli prison, facing trial on charges of being behind suicide bombings and other militant attacks.

In the event of Mr Arafat's death, a new president can be chosen by election or, if necessary, by the PLO executive committee. An election is near to impossible with Israeli tanks still in West Bank cities and the Palestinian population hemmed in by roadblocks.

Mr Arafat's death would leave vacant not only the post of Palestinian president, but also those of head of the PLO and of the Fatah faction. A successor would need support in the PLO and Fatah, as well as on the Palestinian street.

The candidates favoured by Israel and the US have little chance. The former security minister Mohammed Dahlan viewed by Palestinians as an Israeli and American stooge; Jibril Rajoub, a former security chief, is even less popular.

The former prime minister Abu Mazen, who resigned after a power struggle with Mr Arafat, is discredited and disliked. Farouk Qaddoumi has support in the PLO but he is living in Tunisia, and it is unlikely the Israelis would allow him to return.

With the shortage of candidates, there is increasing speculation that Israel wants to make a deal with Mr Barghouti, freeing him in exchange for his co-operation as Palestinian leader; it is not clear whether Mr Barghouti would agree to such a deal.