Governing vs. Leading: Who Can Succeed Arafat?


What opportunities or challenges does a post-Arafat Middle East pose for Palestine, Israel, and the United States? Will the Bush Administration renew its commitment to the moribund peace process? As expected, the U.S. and Israel are framing the question in terms of personalities rather than the issues that lie at the heart of the conflict. The list of possible successors is short and the line up appears obvious. However, some groups are waiting in the background for the right opportunity to lay claim to the reins of power. For Palestinians, who for the past four decades have known no other leader, the question is not who can succeed Arafat, but who can lead their national struggle at a time of great uncertainty.

The Chain of Command

Although Arafat has never designated a successor, the chain of command established within the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Palestinian Authority (PA) Basic Law sets the stage for a successor until elections are held.

Former Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas has long served as Arafat’s deputy in the PLO’s Executive Committee (EC)–”the highest executive PLO body. It represents the PLO internationally and consists of 18 members elected by the Palestinian National Council (PNC), the legislative body of the PLO. Abbas is also Arafat’s deputy in the Fateh Central Committee–”the decision-making body of Fateh, the largest group within the PLO.

Post-Arafat, Abbas is not likely to be challenged in either position. The Islamic groups are not members of the PLO and have no representation in its Executive Committee. The leaders of the two largest groups after Fateh who have representation in the Executive Committee, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), do not pose a challenge: their senior leaders have been either killed or imprisoned by Israel or live in exile.

The only challenge to Abbas could come if the PNC is convened to elect a new Executive Committee and if Fateh puts forth a new candidate. A meeting of the PNC whose members are spread around the world, is unlikely.

According to the PA’s Basic Law, if the president dies or is incapacitated, the Speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council becomes president for 60 days until elections are held. However, after the appointment of a prime minister that clause seems to have been amended, although not in writing. Currently, the speaker is Rouhi Fattooh, a member of Fateh who has not challenged Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei’s takeover of some aspects of the PA. Neither, for that matter, has any one of the 88-member Legislative Council. Qurei, Fattooh and Abbas seem to have reached an understanding over the course of events after Arafat, and Fattooh was included in the delegation visiting Arafat in Paris this week. It is worth recalling that, until September 2003, Qurei was the Council Speaker.

Other Contenders

Security chiefs Mohammed Dahlan and Jibril Rajoub, the “insiders”, have lived in the Occupied Territories, fought against Israeli occupation and served in Israeli prisons before being deported. They both have considerable power bases, Dahlan in Gaza where he served as head of the prevailing Preventive Security Service and Rajoub in the West Bank where he commanded the service’s division. They have both made sure to recruit local Palestinians into the service –” men and women who took part in the 1987 uprising against Israel –” which strengthens their local base. Both have also taken part in political negotiations. However, accusations of corruption and disputes with Arafat have eroded their popularity.

The Islamic group Hamas has long challenged the legitimacy of the PA. It sees the PA as a creation of Israel to implement the Oslo Agreements, which it opposes. Hamas has constantly questioned the PA’s negotiation style with Israel, accusing it of giving up Palestinian rights. Hamas refused to take part in the PA or the 1996 elections. Recently, they urged their members to register to vote in a move they described as “keeping their options open.” With Arafat, the unchallengeable candidate gone, Hamas may seize the opportunity to “reclaim the national struggle.” However, Hamas may find it difficult to come up with a winning candidate since prominent and respected leaders like Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, Abdel Azziz Rantisi and Isamil Abu Shanab have been assassinated. Fateh holds a slim lead in popularity polls, and remains the party that will most likely elect the next PA president. Within Fateh ranks, Marwan Bargouthi is the most popular. He is the youngest of all possible successors, an “insider” serving five life sentences in an Israeli prison for his resistance against Israeli occupation. He possesses the trust and respect of the people and commands the loyalty of most of Fateh. Indeed, many Palestinians see within him a young political and military Arafat. Abbas and Qurei will have to work hard on building an alliance with the young Fateh militants who have challenged Arafat in his appointment of people they consider as corrupt “outsiders” –”a term used by Palestinians in the Occupied Territories when referring to those who returned with Arafat in 1994 from Tunisia. Bargouthi would have no problem securing their loyalty.

Some leaders of non-governmental organizations have recently articulated a different strategy for the Palestinian national struggle known as the New Palestinian Initiative. This effort is spearheaded by Mustafa Bargouthi, one of the founders of the Medical Relief Committees. Independents from this new movement could win a respectable number of legislative seats but will unlikely win in a presidential election.

PLO and the PA

As head of the PLO Executive Committee, Abbas is in a stronger position than Qurei. The PLO is the policymaking body that deals with negotiations and other international issues and oversees the PA, which runs the day-to-day local governance of the Palestinians. Abbas is, in effect Qurei’s boss. For a smooth transition to take place, Qurei would have to accept being Abbas’ deputy. If Qurei has higher ambitions, this may develop into a problem as the lines of authority begin to blur and competition over diplomacy and local rule collide. In the past this was not an issue because Arafat was head of the PLO and the PA.

Governing Vs. Leading

Although Abbas and Qurei seem to have things under control and seem to be in agreement over their governing roles, the question remains: do the Palestinian people trust that they can lead the national struggle for freedom? To the Palestinians, Arafat was both governor and leader. The current Abbas-Qurei arrangement is temporary. So is the cooperation of the political groups and security services. Soon, political factions and maybe some security chiefs will want a share in governance and Palestinians will have to head to the polls.

How successful will Qurei and Abbas be at the polls? Both men are considered “outsiders.” They have the political experience of the last decade in negotiations with Israel and the U.S., but they lack the much need grassroots support and the backing of the security forces, a key factor in keeping anyone in power. A power struggle is likely to erupt as contenders within Fateh forge new alliances and loyalties and power bases are secured.

In order to secure calm, Palestinian will need to hold elections. Israel and the U.S. will play a major role in making sure the elections can be held. Without Israel’s removal of checkpoints and lifting of travel restrictions, free elections cannot be held. The U.S. will have to show leadership and reengage in the conflict.

However, clam and stability do not rest only on elections. Whatever the outcome, the newly elected Palestinian leadership will have to prove it can lead the people in their national struggle based on the principles of freedom, self-determination and human rights.