All Writings
May 19, 2002

Who Will Succeed Arafat And Why?

For all intents and purposes Yasir Arafat is Mr. Palestine, he has been the symbol, the substance, the servant and the savior of the Palestinian national movement. His time in power, however, although it may not be numbered in days or months, will certainly last no more than a year or two. Who will be his successor continues to intrigue many observers of the Palestinian political scene. A closer look at Palestinian factionalism and the internal struggle for power points to two definite prospects.

But why does Arafat's departure seem imminent? First, there is growing resistance, especially by the Young Guard–the leaders of the first Intifadah–to his continuing rule. They blame him for the endemic corruption they see around them and do not believe that political reform will change anything as long as he remains at the helm. Second, even though the Bush administration continues to view him as central to future negotiations, he has completely lost credibility with the Israelis. As a result, not much progress toward peace can be expected, which will intensify the frustration of the already discontented Palestinians who will in turn press harder for change. Third, Arafat may be suffering from a number of health problems, including early symptoms of Parkinson's disease and memory loss, he is also subject to occasional fainting spells. The perception of his fragility is further intensifying the jockeying for power. Fourth, the Arab states and many in the international community, including the United States, will be relieved to see him go and simply switch to the first Palestinian leader who enjoys popular support and displays political savvy and realism.

Who seems most likely to replace Arafat? I believe there will be a struggle among three major movements and which emerges as victorious depends largely on the public's perception of the various leaders and of the promise they hold for the future. Obviously, besides Israel, Egypt, Jordan and the United States have vested interests in the matter and may indirectly influence the outcome.

The Old Guard enjoys about 32 to 35% of the popular supportThe Old Guard is generally viewed as corrupt, perhaps irredeemably so. The popularity of Arafat and the Fatah dropped appreciably in July 2000, aided by the perceived failure of the peace process and growing disenchantment with the PA's governance. Because of the second Intifadah and documented evidence linking Arafat to terror activity, Israel has distanced itself from these leaders, blaming them by association for Arafat's misdeeds. These include Muhmud Abbas (Abu Mazen), who appears to be Arafat's choice to succeed him. Abbas, a cautious man, prefers to operate away from the day-to-day Palestinian frictions. He enjoys the support of the wealthy Gulf states as well as of the United States. Ahmad Qurie (Abu Ala), the speaker of the constitutional council, would be the legal successor to Arafat but does not enjoy popular support. Other remote possibilities for successor are Nabil Sha'ath, the chief negotiator with Israel, and Muhammad Rashid, a financial advisor to Arafat – neither commands much of a public sway. and includes many current holders of key positions who because they are close associates of Arafat are strongly connected to and draw their legitimacy from him. The Al-Fatah organization provides his backbone support, and most of the security apparatus is attached to it.

The Young Guard, which enjoys about 30 to 35% of the popular support is represented by the leaders of the first Intifadah.They demand greater democracy, accountability in the handling of public funds and transparency. They also seek social and political reforms, an end to corruption and more direct confrontation with Israel in order to establish themselves as the next leaders. The Young Guard want to force Israel to withdraw unilaterally as it withdrew from southern Lebanon, and by weakening the Old Guard, to eventually replace it. Their leaders take the position that when the time comes to negotiate with Israel over a final settlement only those who have established a credible record of fighting the Israelis will have the legitimacy to govern and the mandate to fight or detain those Palestinian elements, especially Hamas and Jihad, that want to continue the battle. One of the more prominent leaders in this group is Jabril Rajoub, the preventive security chief in the West Bank. He is anti-Jordanian and would crack down on Hamas if it serves his political aims. Like Rajoub, Muhammad Dahlan, the chief security in Gaza, would move brutally to impose law and order in ways that might enhance his own political prospects. Marwan Barghouti could have been another potential successor but he forfeited that chance. He was the former West Bank Fatah Chief, who served as main figure for the Palestinians to rally behind, but was recently captured by Israel for his masterminding of some of the terrorist attacks against it. Dr. Sari Nusseibeh the President of al Quds University and a PA representative in East Jerusalem, is respected but does not have a following of his own. Although its military wing is small, the Young Guard has been in a position to take control of many of the Authority's disintegrating institutions but have not created new ones. It members have accepted Arafat's authority, even if they remain highly critical of his authoritarian rule.

Hamas and Jihad comprise the third group, and they too command roughly 1/3 of the popular support. Hamas, which was established in 1987, opposes not only the Israeli occupation, but Israel's very existence. The organization is composed of a political and a military wing. Its aim is to destroy Israel and create in its place an Islamic state, extending over all of mandatory Palestine. Hamas introduced the tactic of suicide bombing in1992. This group and other extreme factions like Jihad, are unacceptable partners in any dialogue or negotiation with Israel. Jihad, an offspring of Hamas, is headquartered in Damascus and headed by Ramadan Shallah. It focuses primarily on ruthlessly attacking Israel and is supported by Iran. Although both groups have entered into a marriage of convenience with the Young Guard from the beginning of the second Intifadah, they will eventually become the targets of the new leader, unless they forsake violence against Israel altogether which is highly unlikely. Hamas's spiritual leader is Shiek Yassin, while Khaled Meshaal remains in charge of the group's military wing.

As the jockeying for power continues among the various groups and within each, a leader who meets several important prerequisites will eventually forge ahead. Arafat's successor must be in control of important security forces, believe in social and political reforms, speak out against corruption, maintain a fairly good rapport with Arafat, confront the Israelis but believe in an equitable and permanent two-state solution and be willing to take on Hamas and Jihad. Finally, the new leader must be committed to the establishment of liberal secular democracy, and capable of incorporating the Young Guard and nationalist elements (a substantial number of the followers of the old guard) against the Islamist extremists. Most Palestinians yearn for such a leader and Israel seeks someone like this as its partner in negotiation.

I believe that the two men meet these criteria and seem most likely to succeed Arafat are Muhammad Dahlan and Jabril Rajoub. Each has a nearly perfect resume and can not only assume Arafat's mantle, but negotiate credibly with Israel. Both men are knowledgeable and tough, with proven ability to clamp down on terrorism, have dealt extensively with Israel and speak perfect Hebrew. Although both men have acquired enemies over the years, still short of assassination or unexpected developments, they will be in the forefront to succeed Arafat. Which of the two will eventually prevail depends on the circumstances of Arafat's departure and their actions on the ground from here on.