JERUSALEM -- For Saeb Erakat, a college professor long involved in Palestinian politics, the brief disappearance of Yasser Arafat offered "the 10 most scary hours of my life."
It was not just affection for Mr. Arafat that caused his anxiety, but the realization that, politically, the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization would leave "a big vacuum that, to be honest, I don't think would be filled."
The crash of Mr. Arafat's plane and his dramatic rescue Wednesday from the Libyan desert aroused a demanding question: Who comes after Arafat?
The answer, right now, is no one.
As abhorrent as much of his political life has been to the West, Mr. Arafat is seen by many as the only figure able to hold together the often-feuding factions of his people.
And he is the only one with the credentials, written as they may be in the blood of terrorism, to force more radical Palestinians to accept the peace negotiations under way under U.S. sponsorship.
Western nations seeking a settlement in the Middle East are thus in the ironic position of depending on a guerrilla fighter to be a moderating agent of peace.
"We are at a turning point in our history," said Mr. Erakat, a professor of political science at a Palestinian university in Nablus. "With the peace talks going on, with the difficulty in our economy, the loss of [Mr. Arafat] would be disastrous."
But it is Mr. Arafat's own violent past that increases the odds that the question of a successor must be faced. He has accrued enemies inside and outside the movement that he has chaired since 1969. Several of his top aides have been killed, and the PLO leader has been the target of many assassination attempts.
A successor would be chosen by the 600-member Palestine National Council. But Mr. Arafat, 62, has been reluctant to share power and no strong candidate is evident, according to observers.
Three men who shared Mr. Arafat's trust and held some authority were assassinated and have not been replaced. Instead, Mr. Arafat has assumed their duties. This tight hold on power has caused strain within the PLO.
Leaflets criticizing the PLO leadership began appearing last year, some anonymous and others signed by members of Mr. Arafat's organization. They alleged corruption, inefficiency and personal aggrandizement. A recent editorial in the East Jerusalem newspaper Al-Fajr also alleged financial improprieties in the PLO's handling of money it receives from other Arab states.
A meeting of the PLO Central Committee in Tunis, Tunisia, canceled Thursday to allow Mr. Arafat to recover from the crash, was expected to deal with some of those concerns.
Despite the intensity of the criticism, there is a widely held view that Mr. Arafat is indispensable to the movement. Lamis Andoni, a Palestinian journalist with close ties to the PLO leadership, wrote in the Journal of Palestine Studies that "even many of Arafat's critics state that the survival of the PLO could depend much on the survival of Arafat."
Its collapse could leave as the most organized and influential group Hamas, a strict fundamentalist Muslim organization that has been growing in importance at the expense of the secular PLO.
Within the PLO, Mr. Arafat's Fatah remains the largest group. But it has long been beset by dozens of smaller splinter groups, including those of more radical figures such as George Habash's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, that strongly oppose peace negotiations with Israel.
Those groups do not have enough support to replace Mr. Arafat. But, conversely, without someone of Mr. Arafat's stature to help rein them in, they could escalate the violence and disrupt the peace talks, according to Guy Bechor, Arab-affairs writer for Israel's Haaretz newspaper.
"Arafat is special," said Khassan al-Khatib, a delegate to the peace talks who is not affiliated with Fatah. "He is the only one able to bring together the political bits and pieces. He's the only one who is able to lead the Palestinians to a moderate position. And he's the only one who can appeal to different people.
"He has the capability to appear as a simple person, and be loved by the simple people, but he can handle the high politics, too. We have leaders who are popular, but not qualified to understand the politics. And we have intellectuals who do not appeal to the simple people."