Palestinian leader's declining health raises concerns Arafat's appearance fuels speculation about reviving peace talks

November 21, 1997|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

JERUSALEM -- Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who has appeared to be ailing for months, looked so pale and shaky at a weekend news conference in Switzerland that a journalist inquired about his health as a matter of international concern.

"How do I look to you?" Arafat answered with a smile.

"You look teary-eyed. Your lips are shaking. You're speaking slowly. You're pale," the American reporter replied.

Arafat blanched even further at the description of himself that was being broadcast in Israel and the Palestinian-ruled territories.

He quickly switched from English to his native Arabic to say that he was merely tired.

Despite the dodge, the encounter has served to bring the subject of Arafat's clearly deteriorating health onto the front pages of Israeli and Palestinian newspapers.

Although people who work closely with Arafat say he is as alert and hard-working as ever, his tremors are fueling worry about possibilities for salvaging the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

And the lack of a clear heir in the Palestinian hierarchy is feeding speculation about the possibility of a violent struggle to succeed Arafat, 68.

Palestinian officials deny suggestions that his trembling lips and hands are symptoms of Parkinson's disease, possibly resulting from his 1992 plane crash in the Libyan desert.

They say he is working too hard and is often depressed over the collapse of the peace process. But they insist that reports of his ill health are Israeli propaganda to weaken the Palestinian leader.

Ahemd Qrei, speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, was quoted on the front page of the Palestinian daily newspaper Al-Quds on Monday as saying that Arafat was in good health and that rumors to the contrary were meant to "create divisions among the Palestinian people."

Foreign diplomats who meet regularly with Arafat say that, while some Israeli reports of his ill health are exaggerated, his condition is worsening.

He sometimes speaks haltingly or stares into space for short periods.

"He has not looked very good now for about two months or so," said a Western diplomat who sees Arafat regularly.

Most observers concur that Arafat's illness does not appear to affect his mental capacity or to put him in immediate danger.

Still, like the plane crash in Libya and numerous assassination attempts over the years, Arafat's current condition has reminded Middle East politicians of his mortality and has raised questions about Palestinian politics after Arafat.

In large part, the problem has been created by Arafat, who has defeated all political challenges over the past 30 years and centralized power in his own hands.

Arafat holds many key posts, including president of the Palestinian authority, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization executive committee, chairman of his Fatah movement's central committee and commander of the Palestinian armed forces.

And there is no clear line of succession.

The Basic Law, or Palestinian constitution approved by the Palestinian legislature, says that the speaker of Parliament would take over from the president for an interim period until elections could be held. That is Ahmed Qrei, better known as Abu Alla.

But Arafat has never signed the Basic Law, so its validity is questioned.

Mahmoud Abbas, known as Abu Maazen, is secretary general of the PLO executive committee, making him the No. 2 in that organization, as well as the official in charge of negotiations with Israel.

Many Palestinians see him as the logical successor to Arafat.

But neither Qrei nor Maazen has Arafat's popularity. And many Palestinians fear a bloody power struggle among leaders of the Palestinian security services.

In particular, Jibril Rajoub, head of the Preventive Security Service in the West Bank, is reported to have been stockpiling weapons, while trying to appear as the preferred candidate of the United States and an ally to Israel.

"Arafat should ratify the Basic Law," said Khalil Shikaki, director for the Palestine Center for Research and Studies in Nablus.

"Then he should abandon this Stalinistic system in which one person holds all these positions. He must strengthen institutions."

Shikaki and other political analysts said they fear that Israel will use the issue of Arafat's health to further stall negotiations and hold back concessions.

But Israeli government officials said they have legitimate concerns about a succession battle and the future Palestinian leadership.

Pub Date: 11/21/97

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