RAMALLAH - The Palestinian leadership in Ramallah is struggling to organize
itself in the absence of veteran leader Yasser Arafat. His duties have been
divided between Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia and former prime minister Mahmoud
Abbas. But the old leader may throw a wrench into a smooth succession by having
named a chosen successor at the last moment.
Several East European news agencies as well as the Israeli daily newspaper
Ma'ariv are reporting that Arafat's wife Suha, who is with him at Percy
hospital outside Paris, possesses the leader's "political testament"
in which he anoints the head of the political committee of the Palestine Liberation
Organization (PLO), Farouk Kaddoumi, as the new leader of the movement.
Kaddoumi, significantly, is also in Paris and not in Ramallah. He still refuses
to go there as part of his rejection of the 1993 Oslo peace agreements. The
significance of Arafat reportedly naming the leading "rejectionist"
in his Fatah movement as his successor cannot be overstated. It may influence
the crucial question that many in the West especially ask: will the new leadership
be more moderate or not?
In Ramallah, political analyst Ali Jirbawi from the University of Bir Zeit
is aghast at the idea, but laughs it off. "It will not make any difference,
nothing," he says, and refuses to speculate further about such "rumors."
Hafez Barghuouti, editor of the popular Palestinian daily al-Hayat al-Jadida,
is also shocked at the suggestion. "Farouk Kaddoumi is finished, he will
never be allowed to interfere," he said.
Ahmed Qureia denies that the document exists. The consensus in Ramallah is
that even if it does, it has no legal status because members of Fatah and the
PLO will choose the new leader, not Arafat.
But just the rumor that Arafat has named as his successor a man who rejected
the Oslo peace agreements, which form the base for the whole of the Palestinian
Authority, could seriously undermine the legitimacy of both Qureia and Abbas.
Both men, who are known as moderates and supporters of the peace process, are
trying hard to unify Palestinian factions, including the fundamentalist Muslim
movements Hamas and Islamic Jihad. These rejectionist movements demand a say
in a unified leadership and they want the Oslo agreements to be abrogated. That
demand is unlikely to be met.
Many Palestinians, though, are wary about a new leadership moving too close
to Israel and the United States.
Jirbawi says that the leaders have very little room for maneuver. "They
will have to be very cautious. They cannot be seen to take steps that Arafat
was not willing to take."
When Abbas was prime minister, his own Fatah movement, with the backing of
Yasser Arafat, ousted him for not being firm enough with the Israelis.
The succession is complicated by the dual nature of the Palestinian leadership.
On the one hand there are the institutions of the Palestinian Authority (PA),
which is supposed to rule the people of Gaza and the West Bank, and on the other
hand the PLO, which claims to represent the whole of the Palestinian people.
Jirbawi says several leaders hope to place power over both institutions in
the hands of Abbas "quickly and smoothly." That is why he is pessimistic
that the basic law, a kind of constitution, will be followed.
Officially, on the PA side, the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council
Rawhi Fatouh should take over for at most 60 days, within which period elections
are to be held. Most official spokesmen still call for elections to be held
soon, but Jirbawi has his doubts.
"They will amend the basic law and have the PLC [Palestinian Legislative
Council] vote for Abbas as the new chairman of the PA, or they'll just leave
the situation as it is, with Abbas as leader of the PLO and no leader of the
PA. The excuse will be that the conditions are not right for elections because
of the Israeli occupation."
The position of Hamas in all this is ambiguous. The Muslim movement has gained
a lot of popularity during the Intifada of the last four years because of its
militant actions, but it is not clear that this will translate into political
Ghazi Hamad, editor in chief of the Islamic weekly al-Risala published
in Gaza, doubts that Hamas will be able to join a collective leadership.
"The PA and Fatah will never move enough in the direction of Hamas, they
will not want to become as militant," he said. "They have the power,
they control all the institutions, and they have their own policies, which will
remain the same also after Arafat dies."
Hamas is also calling for elections, which is remarkable because the movement
boycotted them in 1996 because it did not want to recognize the legitimacy of
the Oslo agreements and the PA, much like Farouk Kaddoumi.
Hamad says that the movement will almost certainly participate in municipal
elections and that it is inching toward participating in elections for the PLC
but not for "presidency" of the PA.
Pressure from both Hamas on the one hand and a rejectionist such as Kaddoumi
on the other hand could prevent the new leadership from a capacity to be flexible.
Jirbawi says it is mainly up to Israel to make concessions that will enable
talks to restart. Israeli daily Ha'aretz is reporting that the Sharon
government has drawn up a list of "goodwill gestures." But they fall
short of some of the things that Jirbawi mentions, such as the lifting of the
closures on Palestinian cities.
More immediately, there is another matter that may set the tone for the future
relationship between the new leaders and Israel. It is a fast growing dispute
over the possible burial site for Yasser Arafat.
The 75-year-old leader has expressed the politically explosive wish to be buried
next to al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. Israel insists on Gaza.
"This is already a bitter dispute," says Jirbawi. "It may set
the tone of things to come."