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 gains.
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."