Palestinians

AFTER ARAFAT, WHAT?

The president’s illness raises new concerns about who can replace him,

JONATHON GATEHOUSE November 8 2004
Palestinians

AFTER ARAFAT, WHAT?

The president’s illness raises new concerns about who can replace him,

JONATHON GATEHOUSE November 8 2004

AFTER ARAFAT, WHAT?

Palestinians

The president’s illness raises new concerns about who can replace him,

JONATHON GATEHOUSE

AS EVER with Yasser Arafat, nothing is clear-cut. Past winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, but reviled by many as one of the world’s top terrorists. Celebrated as the father of the Palestinian nation, or damned as its dictator. Now, depending on whom you believe, at death’s door, or simply suffering from a bad case of the sniffles.

The ailing 75-year-old president of the Palestinian Authority has long been rumoured to be battling everything from Parkinson’s to cancer or even a stroke. And when he suddenly

fell ill last week, vomiting and briefly losing consciousness during a meeting with top advisers, there were convincing indications that the end might be nigh. Arafat’s wife, Suha, hustled in from Tunis—her first visit with her husband since 2001—and the top physicians of the Arab world were called to the West Bank to consult. Crowds of anxious supporters and a crush of international media gathered outside the ruined Ramallah compound where Israeli troops have kept him penned for more than two years. The Israeli government braced for frenzied mourning and demonstrations.

The immediate crisis seemed to pass, however, and steps were taken to convince his public, and the world, that Arafat is still in control. Aides initially said it was

just a bad case of the flu and affirmed the PLO founder’s vitality, reporting he performed dawn prayers and ate a healthy breakfastleading to the instant-classic headline, “Arafat has Cornflakes as Israel Prepares for his Death” in a Scottish paper. A photo-op was arranged—Arafat in a wheelchair, dressed in an oddly hip-hop powder-blue track suit and toque combination, surrounded by his smiling team of physicians.

Despite a decision to fly the Palestinian leader to Paris for further medical treatment (the Israeli government lifted its travel ban on Arafat and has reportedly guaranteed the PA that he will be allowed back in the country), supporters continued to claim that nothing was seriously amiss. “I just saw him and he looked all right to me,” Ghassan Khatib, the Palestinian minister of labour, told Maclean’s in a phone interview. “The trip is so the doctors can give a proper diagnosis. We don’t have the proper equipment here.” The latest reports—that the PA president is suffering from a low blood platelet count, a possible sign of leukemia or other cancers—were similarly dismissed.

FROM CAIRO TO PARIS

A life of struggle and violence in the name of the Palestinian cause

Aug. 4,1929 Arafat born in Cairo, Egypt. 1952 Joins the Muslim Brotherhood, an Egyptian group whose members had taken part in the Arab-lsraeli War of 1948-49 and been banned from Egypt after a Brother assassinated the

Egyptian prime minister.

1958-59 Co-founds al-Fatah, which would later become the most powerful section of the Palestine Liberation Organization, an umbrella group founded in 1964; its goal was to

establish a “Palestinian entity.”

1969 Becomes PLO chairman. Group expelled from Jordan in 1971 and moves

to Lebanon. An extremist Palestinian group claims responsibility for deaths of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich.

1973 Becomes head of PLO political department. One year later, Arab heads of state declare PLO

the sole legitimate representative of all Palestinians.

1982 PLO expelled from Lebanon after drawing Israeli

Whatever the outcome, the panic and uncertainty surrounding Arafat’s illness has thrown a long-standing problem into stark relief: who can replace the man who’s come to embody Palestinians’ struggle for statehood? “I’m very dubious about what they will have after him,” says Hussein Agha, an Oxford academic and former peace negotiator for the Palestinians. “He put all of the disparate tribes—people in Gaza, poor refugees in camps in Lebanon and Jordan, rich merchants in the Gulf, leftists, rightists—under one national banner.” As long as Palestinians remain stateless, titles like prime minister and president are essentially meaningless, argues Agha. Despite a decline in Arafat’s political fortunes in recent years—hemmed in by the Israelis, unable or unwilling to control the forces driving the latest intifada—he remains a potent symbol. And whether elected or appointed, Arafat’s successor is unlikely to command the same type of loyalty. “The political reality is scattered gangs rather than a unified polity,” says Agha. “And as long as the Palestinians are not a normal society, they need to have an inspirational leader for cohesion.”

Since taking control of the Palestinian nationalist movement in 1969, Arafat has expended significant effort, both politically and militarily, to maintain his primacy. He has never named a deputy or anointed an heir apparent. And although there is a legal process for replacing him as the head of the

PA (the speaker of the legislative council will take his place for 60 days, then a new leader will be elected), there is no clear plan of succession for his other job, head of the still influential PLO. As a result, the list of potential replacements is more long than short. At the top are 72-year-old former prime minister Mahmoud Abbas (also know as Abu Mazen), who resigned in 2003 after falling out with Arafat, and the current holder of the office, Ahmed Qureia (Abu Ala), who is 68. Members of the “Old Guard,” they spent decades in exile with Arafat in Jordan, Lebanon and Tunisia. However, both have had their own health problems in recent years. Qureia suffers from heart disease, and Mazen underwent prostate cancer surgery in 2001. Nabil Shaath, the PA foreign

WHETHER elected

or appointed, Arafat’s successor is unlikely to command the same degree of loyalty

minister, is another possible candidate—a smooth western-style politician whose business background and friendly relationship with the United States could be both assets and hindrances.

There are also up-and-comers, members of the generation of Palestinian leaders who grew up in Gaza and the territories, and are generally considered more reform-minded than their long-exiled counterparts. Mohammed Dahlan, 43, the former Gaza security chief, falls into this category, as does Jibril

Rajoub, who currently heads security forces in the West Bank. A wild-card candidate could be Marwan Barghouti, 45, one of the architects of the current intifada. However, the former West Bank head of Arafat’s mainstream Fatah faction is serving five consecutive life sentences in an Israeli jail for murder, and it seems unlikely Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his government would release such a potentially powerful opponent.

There seems little agreement among analysts as to exactly who the front-runner might be. One scenario being floated is that Palestinians might buy themselves more time by having a committee of three or more people fill the Arafat void. Another is the appointment of an interim, caretaker leader who would rule until the backroom wheeling and dealing produces a clear, popular choice.

How the Palestinian public will react to the passing of a national hero is a deeper worry. The Israeli Defence Forces, concerned that it would be blamed because of its Ramallah siege, has been working on a day-after plan—optimistically dubbed “A New Leaf”— for the past year. Commanders have been instructed to strengthen roadblocks and defensive positions, but to avoid inflaming public sensibilities. (Jordan and Lebanon are also reportedly developing a plan to deal with violent outbursts among their substantial Palestinian refugee populations.) The greatest source of friction, however, will be over Arafat’s final resting place. The PA president has long indicated he wants to be buried on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. The Israeli government, which will make the decision, prefers the cemetery at Abu Dis, on the outskirts of East Jerusalem.

response for rocket attacks. Arafat moves PLO headquarters to Tunis, Tunisia.

1987 Beginning of first Palestinian intifada in the Gaza Strip, West Bank and Jerusalem. Arafat proclaims the PLO the

“government in exile” of the State of Palestine.

1988 Appears before UN General Assembly, formally recognizes Israel’s right to exist and renounces terrorism.

1991 Secretly marries 26-year-old

Palestinian Suha Tawil. Daughter Zahwa born in 1995.

1993 Signs Oslo Accords, a treaty that calls for limited self-rule for Palestinians in West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

1994 Wins Nobel Peace Prize with Israeli prime minister

Yitzhak Rabin and Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres.

1996 Elected president of Palestinian

Authority; pledges with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to work toward a peace treaty.

1998 With Netanyahu, signs Wye River accords, a land-for-peace deal, which includes transfer

CONTINUED ON PAGE 25

Shlomo Gazit, a retired majorgeneral and former head of IDF military intelligence, says the agitation and violence, if they happen, will likely be short-term.

Hamas, the only real challenger to Arafat’s Fatah movement, has its own problems (last April Israeli forces assassinated its top two leaders in Gaza) and seems content to run the intifada and leave the politics to others. The bigger challenge for Israel, he says, will be the road forward.

“Are we going to try to help them establish a new leadership or not?” asks Gazit. “That’s necessary if we want a candid Palestinian leader who is open to negotiation. But I’m not sure that’s what the Sharon government is looking for.”

For the past four years, the official Israeli position has been that Arafat was a oneman roadblock to peace, making any sort of negotiation futile. Sharon’s plan of unilateral disengagement—pulling Israeli troops and settlers out of Gaza and parts of the West Bank, effectively deciding the borders of a future Palestinian state with a countrylong security wall—could suddenly lose its raison d’être. The Israeli Knesset narrowly approved the pullout last weekjust the day before news broke of Arafat’s illness—although settlers and their supporters vow to continue fighting the plan. Sharon is facing a schism within his own Likud party over the strategy, as hard-liners

press for a national referendum.

The death of Arafat might open up a face-saving route for retreat, some suggest. But Menachem Klein, a political scientist at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University and one-time adviser to former prime minister Ehud Barak, says anyone who thinks Sharon will wait to see if a more promising partner emerges is misreading the famously pugnacious prime minister. “He’s not going to suddenly surrender,” says Klein. The Sharon government has already set stringent preconditions for peace talks—a halt to all attacks, the surrender of weapons and terror suspects—that will be difficult for any Palestinian leader to meet. “The Israeli domestic agenda dominates the timetable for peace,” says Klein.

As it stands, the passing of Arafat, whether

sooner or later, will be just one of the seismic shifts necessary to re-energize the peace process. The Bush administration has shown almost zero sympathy for, or interest in, the plight of Palestinians, especially since Sept. 11. With U.S. and international attention firmly focused on Iraq, there’s little pressure on Sharon to change his stance. Even a change of tenants at the White House wouldn’t be enough to put the Middle East crisis back on the front burner. In his time, Yasser Arafat forcefully, and often violently, placed the concerns of his people at the forefront of the world agenda. Now, as he fades from the scene, his legacy seems as murky as his own past. 171

jonathon.gatehouse@macleans.rogers.com

of a portion of West Bank to Palestinian Authority, safe passage corridors for Palestinians between Gaza and the West Bank, and a crackdown on terrorism.

July 2000 Rejects deal offered by

Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak at Camp David. Proposal would have established a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, with East Jerusalem as its capital, and negotiated the return of a

limited number of refugees. Arafat makes no counter-offer.

September 2000 Second intifada begins and violence consumes West

Bank, Gaza Strip and Jerusalem. March 29,2002 Declared an enemy of Israel by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. September 2003 Israel declares Arafat the root problem blocking peace deal and decides to

send him into exile. April 2004 Declared a legitimate target for assassination by Sharon.

Aug. 4,2004 Celebrates his 75th birthday.

Oct. 30, 2004 Arrives in Paris for emergency medical treatment.