Palestinians in talks on Arafat succession

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Palestinian leaders have begun to consider the options for an orderly succession to Yasser Arafat when he dies, despite doctors' assurances that his condition is "stable".

The Palestinian Prime Minister, Ahmed Qureia, emerged from a four-hour meeting in Gaza, with 13 Palestinian groups - including the militant factions Hamas and Islamic Jihad - to claim that he had won agreement to "a joint security plan ... to ensure security and order" in Mr Arafat's absence.

The move came as a reformist member of the Palestinian Legislative Council served notice that he wanted to question Mohammed Rashid, Arafat's economic adviser, about the alleged squandering of millions of dollars, including international aid funds.

Meanwhile Tayeb Abdul Rahim, a senior aide of the ailing Palestinian Authority President, confirmed publicly for the first time that Mr Qureia, and his predecessor Abu Mazen, had assumed some emergency financial and security powers from Mr Arafat. However, a senior Palestinian Liberation Organisation source said yesterday that the temporary powers only covered essential decisions that could not be delayed, and that the two men were still proceeding on the constitutional assumption that Mr Arafat will return to office.

Nevertheless, there is active discussion in Palestinian circles here about what will happen if he does not recover. Mr Arafat's death could boost moves that were already afoot within elements of the Palestinians leadership to challenge Israel and its main allies to facilitate elections for the presidency.

Israel's role would be important to the success of any such elections because of its power to ease the difficulties associated with mounting a national campaign across the multiple roadblocks and checkpoints that separate sectors of the occupied territories from each other. The initiative envisages militant factions, such as Hamas, taking part. For them to do so fully would mean that those candidates wanted by the security forces would have to be given immunity during the campaign.

Although the proposal would include the offer of a ceasefire while the election took place, one member of the 12-man PLO executive suggested yesterday that Israel might refuse to accept, unless there had been a permanent end to militant violence. But such a refusal could put the US in an embarrassing dilemma because of its commitment to spread democracy in the Middle East.

The PLO source suggested a more likely scenario that, when Mr Arafat dies, the PLO's 139-member central council would elect a new chairman to replace, him and that the PLC would be asked to amend its basic law to install the new chairman as the Palestinian Authority President for a defined period of perhaps a year.

While there was a danger that the dominant Fatah faction would split, the source said that the former prime minister Abu Mazen - a member of the Fatah "old guard" - is nevertheless widely regarded as a moderate interested, in principle, in a negotiated settlement, and that he would be the clear favourite. In national elections, however, Abu Mazen would be a much weaker candidate because of his lack of a popular base, and would risk losing more militant voters to Hamas. A vastly more popular Fatah candidate would be Marwan Barghouti, but for him to succeed would probably require Israel to release him from prison, possibly in a prisoner exchange. Israel might be reluctant to do this unless it was confident that he would prove a suitable "partner".

Another conceivable but, for Palestinians, much more controversial Fatah candidate might be the ambitious Mohammed Dahlan - currently in Paris during Mr Arafat's illness. He has a base in southern Gaza, and has won praise in some Israeli and Western circles for his perceived abilities as a potential security strongman.

Meanwhile, Abdel Jawad Saleh, a strongly anti-corruption member of the PLC, said he would be seeking to learn what had happened to a supposedly missing $200m, which Mr Arafat is alleged to have paid Mr Rashid for failed projects.

He said: "These funds belong to the Palestinian people and, as a representative of the parliament, we should make a resolution demanding that Mohammad Rashid is questioned by the PLC."

This comes amid fears that Mr Arafat's friends and family could inherit his fortune, and follows a recent declaration to donor countries by the PA Finance Minister, Salem Fayyad, that the organisation has only $19m to meet payroll expenses of $225m between now and the end of the year, and that non-payroll expenses are running a deficit of $135m. An International Monetary Fund report last year found that hundreds of millions of dollars are under the sole discretion of Mr Arafat. The Arab satellite news channel al-Jazeera this week estimated his fortune at between $4.2bn and $6.5bn.

Meanwhile, in the first sign of a conspiracy theory about Mr Arafat's illness, a Palestinian source claimed that Jibril Rajoub, his security adviser, had begun an inquiry into the possibility that the PA President, currently being treated in a French military hospital, had been poisoned.