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Fears of power vacuum unfounded?

By Atul Aneja

MANAMA, NOV. 9. The Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, who has occupied the political centre-stage in West Asia for nearly four decades, has not named a successor. This has resulted in anxiety among Palestinians that in his absence, a power vacuum might emerge, which could trigger anarchy in the West Bank and Gaza strip. However, these fears may be unfounded, as Mr. Arafat leaves behind a stable institutional framework, which can withstand the jolt of his departure.

In steering a political transition, new leaders have to fill in the positions Mr. Arafat held, in the top three bodies. These are the Palestinian Authority (PA), which is the governing body in the West Bank and Gaza, the broader Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), which is responsible for peace talks with Israel, and the mainstream Palestinian national movement, Fatah.

Collective leadership

The former Palestinian Prime Minister, Mahmoud Abbas, is the next in seniority after Mr. Arafat has taken the interim charge of the PLO executive committee. The Prime Minister, Ahmed Qurei, has emerged as the leading figure on the National Security Council. Write-ups in the Arab press have said after considerable internal debate, Mr. Qurei has been accorded the title of deputy head of the council. It is therefore quite possible that a collective leadership is showing signs of emerging, with Mr. Abbas as the de facto President and Mr. Qurei continuing as Prime Minister, with his powers enhanced.

There are other key individuals within the Palestinian ranks who are expected to play their part in the transition. Foremost among them is the Fatah leader, Marwan Barghouti. An opinion poll in September conducted by the Palestinian Centre for Survey and Research showed that Mr. Barghouti was only next to Mr. Arafat in terms of popularity.

Mr. Barghouti, however, is in an Israeli jail and is physically out of the equation, though the opinion he espouses from his prison cell is likely to carry considerable weight during the transition debate. Farouk Kaddoumi is another political heavy weight who is likely to be in focus. Mr. Kaddoumi is known to be a man of strong views. He was one of the few among the top ranking Palestinian leaders who opposed the Oslo accords — the bedrock of the Israel-Palestinian peace deal. In 1994, he decided to stay on in Tunis instead of joining Mr. Arafat's entourage, which came out of exile and set foot on the Palestinian territories. As the head of the PLO's political department, Mr. Kaddoumi has maintained an extensive network of contacts abroad.

Considerable influence

There are no other obvious leaders of national stature, but individuals such as Mohammad Dahlan exercise considerable influence especially within the sprawling Palestinian security apparatus. Mr. Dahlan, a former national security chief, reportedly exercises considerable clout over Gaza's Preventive Security establishment, a key part of the Palestinian security architecture. Another person who is under focus is Jibril Rajoub, Mr. Arafat's national security adviser and the former head of the Preventive Security Service in the West Bank.

Mr. Jibril's influence within the Tanzim, a powerful armed wing of Fatah, is well recognised. The role of Mousa Arafat, who is head of the military intelligence, can also not be discounted.

The onus will now be on these three individuals to play their part to ensure that discipline within the powerful Palestinian security establishment does not break down.

Under the Palestinian basic law, the Speaker of Parliament, Rawhi Fattouh, would take power in the event of Mr. Arafat's death. However, the law provides for elections within the following 60 days.

Samir Awad, who teaches International Relations at Birzeit University in Ramallah told The Hindu that timely elections, in which militant organisations such as Hamas, which can challenge Mr. Arafat's successors, also participate, would be the key to long-term stability in the Palestinian territories.

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