In his speech on June 24, which purported to chart a policy for the Middle East, US president George W Bush left no doubt that he wanted to see Yasser Arafat removed from the presidency of the Palestinian Authority (PA). But after discounting Bush’s shrill blustering, scathing hectoring of Arafat and the Palestinians, and all the opaque “visions” of a “provisional Palestinian state,” the speech has unwittingly brought into sharp focus questions about Arafat’s longevity and political succession.
The question of the succession to Arafat, who is 73 years old and in visibly poor health, appeared on the Palestinian political scene years before Bush’s speech. Observers have been abuzz with speculation since Arafat was seriously injured in a plane crash in the Libyan desert in 1992. Since then his deteriorating health has shifted the focus more and more to a potential successor. Like his fellow rulers in the rest of the Arab world, Arafat’s long tenure at the helm of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the PA has been characterised by one-upmanship. Throughout his political career he has displayed a pronounced aversion to institution-building, antipathy to the creation of a well-defined chain of command, and wariness of rivals capable of wielding power, all of which made him reluctant to appoint a successor.
Arafat’s lust for political power is shown by the various political hats that he wears. Foremost among the many high-ranking posts he occupies are that of president of the PA, chairman of the PLO, head of the major group within the PLO, Fatah, and president of the State of Palestine that was proclaimed at a Palestinian National Council meeting in Algiers in November 1988. The concentration of power in Arafat’s hands further complicates the succession question. If Arafat were to leave the scene, then the succession would not be about one man but several. The various major posts he currently occupies are likely to be filled by various people, some of whom might be antagonistic to each other.
Potential successors fall into two main categories. There are those who belong to the older generation, mostly Arafat’s cronies who worked with the PLO during its long years of exile in Jordan, Lebanon and Tunisia. These are usually known as the “Tunisians.” To this group belong a number of pillars of the sordid edifice of sleaze and corruption that Arafat has built around the Palestinian Authority. Despite their enjoying Arafat’s trust, Palestinians in the West Bank and Ghazzah tend to distrust them because of their involvement in corruption.
Foremost among possible contenders in this category is 65-year-old Ahmad Qurey’i, better known by his nom de guerre Abu al-’Ala’, the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) or parliament. The Palestinian Basic Law, a draft constitution drawn up in 1997 but only signed recently by Arafat, calls for the temporary succession of the speaker of the PLC as acting president for 60 days, during which time general elections are to be held to choose a real successor. Abu al-’Ala’ was deeply involved in the secret negotiations that led to the first interim Oslo accord with Israel in 1993. But he lacks widespread support among the Palestinians, has no political machine of his own, and has no powerbase within the PLO or Fatah. He is also in poor health; he recently underwent two open-heart operations in a week. One legal complication in the succession of the PLC speaker is that the Oslo process, which provides the legal basis of the PLC, as well as all other institutions of the PA, officially expired in May 1999. Article III, Section 4, of the Interim Agreement on the Modalities of Palestinian Autonomy, or Oslo II, signed on September 28, 1994, sets the term of the PA authority to no more than five years from the signing of the Ghazzah-Jericho Agreement on May 4, 1994.
Another possible contender from this group is 67-year-old Mahmoud ‘Abbas, better known by his nom de guerre Abu Mazen, who is Arafat’s number two in the PLO. He is another one who is deeply involved in negotiations with the Israelis and who maintained close contacts with the US. He enjoys support among segments of the Fatah rank and file. However, his role as the architect of the now-defunct Oslo peace process undermines his ability to gain wide acceptance among the vast majority of Palestinians, whose living conditions and security deteriorated under the Oslo arrangements.
Then there is the category of so-called “insiders,” composed of younger people who led the struggle in the occupied territories while the PLO was in exile, and who have come to prominence more recently, mostly during the first intifada (1987-1993). In general, members of this group enjoy stronger roots in the West Bank and Ghazzah and are better educated than the “Tunisians.” Some of them speak fluent Hebrew and have developed a more sophisticated and intimate understanding of Israeli society than the old guard.
The most prominent of these insiders is 49-year-old Jibril al-Rajjoub, chief of the Preventive Security Apparatus in the West Bank. On July 2 Arafat sacked Rajjoub, replacing him with Zuhayr al-Manasrah, the governor of Jenin, in a move that was widely seen as an attempt to deflect international pressure to reform the PA. Arafat also dismissed General Ghazi al-Jabali, the PA police chief in the Ghazzah Strip, and Mahmoud Abu Marzouk, head of Palestinian civil defence. Initially Rajjoub, who maintains close contacts with the Israeli and American intelligence communities and is known for his intense hostility to the Islamic movement, refused to accept Arafat’s dismissal, arguing that he had not been served with a formal written notice of dismissal. He later stepped down reluctantly, but refused to accept his appointment to the position of governor of Jenin, which he considered a demotion. In fact, Arafat’s wariness of Rajjoub’s ambitions has repeatedly come to the fore in rows between the two men. Last February Arafat is reported to have drawn his gun, pointed it at Rajjoub and become so consumed with rage that his trembling hand could not hold the gun. Rajjoub is suspect in many quarters of Palestinian society, especially because of his track-record of close coordination with the Israelis over security matters. He was condemned as a traitor by Hamas after he turned over a number of members of Hamas, who were held at Preventive Security headquarters in Ramallah, to the Israelis in April.
Mohammad Dahlan, a 41-year-old former Preventive Security chief in Ghazzah, is another possible contender from the PA’s labyrinth of security organizations. He is widely regarded as the candidate favoured by Israel and the US. Dahlan, who resigned from his post as head of Palestinian security in the Ghazzah Strip before Arafat’s purge, has lately grown squeamish about such reports. In a recent article in the Guardian, he accused Bush of calling for a “coup d’etat against Arafat,” declaring that he will not stand against Arafat while Arafat is under attack. “As long as the Israelis are against Arafat, I’m with him-- whatever reservations I have about some of the decisions that have been made,” Dahlan wrote. He also pointed out that Bush’s thinly-veiled call for the removal of Arafat had backfired and would keep him in place, citing recent polls showing that “nine out of 10 Palestinians say they would vote for Arafat” (July 2, 2002).
Another “insider” who has become prominent during the al-Aqsa intifada is 42-year-old Marwan al-Barghouti, leader of the Tanzim, the youth organisation of Arafat’s Fatah group, in the West Bank. He is a charismatic figure who has played a central role in the intifada and has consistently expressed support for resistance to the Israeli occupation. His name was on top of Israel’s assassination list. Barghouti, who is a member of the PLC, was arrested by the Israelis after their invasion of the West Bank in April, and is currently in jail, where he is mistreated and deprived of sleep. Being in detention diminishes Barghouti’s ability to emerge as a serious candidate for succession at present, but he could still be catapulted into renewed prominence when he is freed.
Given the volatility of the situation and the absence of a clear “heir apparent,” the succession to Arafat continues to be shrouded in uncertainty. One possible scenario is that of a smooth succession, in which either Mahmoud Abbas or Ahmad Qurey’i is the most likely successor. But they are both old and lack physical stamina. Despite their being short of popularity, the succession of either would signal continuity in the Palestinians’ official dealings with the Israelis and the Americans.
It is also possible that the succession will be determined by a struggle between what might be described as the “Oslo elite” and an emerging “intifada elite”: activists who have been involved in mobilizing Palestinian society and leading the second intifada since it began in September 2000. The two elites hold sometimes diametrically opposed views of society and politics. Whereas members of the Oslo elite have been the primary beneficiaries of the PA’s edifice of sleaze, members of the intifada elite have been at the forefront of criticism of the authoritarianism and corruption practised by the PA. Most of them harbour none of the ‘defeatist’ illusions of the Oslo elite about the ability of the Palestinians to defeat the Israeli juggernaut eventually. It is ultimately a struggle between the logic of resistance and stoic perseverance in the face of adversity, and the logic of capitulation and surrender of rights and hopes. Yet that does not necessarily mean that the struggle will degenerate into civil war. However, such a possibility cannot be completely discounted, as outside powers, especially Israel, might well want to use the succession struggle to stoke the flames of internecine bloodletting. So far the Palestinians have displayed an admirable ability to avoid being drawn into the vortex of internal war.
Another possible scenario is a power struggle pitting various elements of the security apparatus, as well as various factions within and without Fatah, against each other. Many of the current political and security leaders would emerge as possible kingmakers and wild cards. If this happens, the emerging regime will be dominated by politicians, with the security services exercising real power from behind the scenes.