Facing the possibility of life without Arafat

Uncertainty: Palestinians are left anxious about their future by the failing health of their leader.

October 30, 2004|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - Palestinians awoke yesterday to the new reality of life without the presence of Yasser Arafat and to urgent questions about whether their leader's absence could mean a new opportunity for peace with Israel or doom the Palestinian Authority to paralysis.

Pale and haggard, wearing an olive green jacket and a fur hat, Arafat climbed aboard a Jordanian air force helicopter for a flight to Amman, Jordan, where he was transferred to a French military jet that flew to an airfield near Paris. He was then taken by helicopter to a French military hospital at Percy, southwest of Paris.

He agreed to be hospitalized after receiving assurances from Israel that he would be allowed to return to the West Bank. However, Palestinians and Israeli officials are quietly preparing for the possibility that Arafat might never come back.

His departure could be the beginning of the end of a turbulent chapter for Palestinians and for their elusive quest for statehood. If new, pragmatic Palestinian leaders emerge while Arafat is in Europe, that change could compel Israel to resume negotiations for a permanent peace settlement that it broke off a year ago.

"Palestinians are living in a state of contradiction," said Mahdi F. Abdul Hadi, the head of a Palestinian think tank in East Jerusalem. "They are between their love, loyalty and symbolic attachment to Arafat, and the reality they face on the ground. In the morning they say Arafat is a charming, loveable leader, and one hour later they say he is old, weak and corrupted.

"The Palestinians will see this situation as a crisis that he will survive as he has survived others," Hadi said. "They are in a state of denial, based on their love, loyalty, affection and commitment."

There is already tension between some of Arafat's long-time associates and a younger generation of reformists determined to end corruption and cronyism within the Palestinian Authority and the PLO.

Leaders of various militant groups and the heads of competing security forces are also vying for physical control of cities, villages and refugee camps throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Palestinians are anxious to hold talks about Israel's proposed withdrawal from Gaza and about the location of a barrier that Israel is completing along what could become permanent borders.

"There's a real risk of a vacuum as long as [Arafat] is alive unless someone can organize on the Palestinian side for him to turn over the reins," a European diplomat said yesterday on the condition he not be identified. "Europeans are very ready to deal with a new leadership. The big question is whether there will be a stable leadership that can command broad authority."

But as long as Arafat is alive, many Israelis and Palestinians say, no one will be able to legitimately govern, or dare to assume control.

"With proper medical care, Arafat could remain `dead-alive' for a long time," Ben Caspit wrote yesterday in Maariv, which joined the rest of Israel's media yesterday in commenting on the significance of the Palestinian leader.

"Critically ill or dead, from this week onward Arafat is not what he once was," said Nahum Barnea, a political commentator for Yedioth Ahronoth. "The man who was a devil in the first act, a partner in the second act and a villain in the third, is departing. He will not be an obstacle from now on."

"God willing, I will come back," Arafat said as he boarded the helicopter that flew him from his compound in Ramallah to Amman. Saeb Erakat, an Arafat loyalist from Jericho, said Arafat was alert and joking as he boarded the helicopter.

The diagnosis of Arafat's disorder remains a mystery, but he has been suffering form stomach pains, fever and nausea for nearly two weeks. The BBC quoted his long-time personal physician, Ashraf Kurdi, as saying that Arafat would be tested for leukemia.

Arafat's spokesman said Thursday that no one would be appointed interim chairman, though the secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Mahmoud Abbas, would informally take charge. Erekat said yesterday that Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia would oversee day-to-day business of the Palestinian Authority.

Abbas resigned as prime minister after failing to persuade Arafat to give up control of his security forces, a requirement to advance an American-backed peace plan. Abbas had been the favorite of the Israelis and Americans, who saw him as serious about ending the conflict.

His successor, Qureia, has also quarreled with Arafat and has threatened to resign several times. His tenure has been marked by inaction, and Israeli leaders refuse to open discussions with him, calling him a mouthpiece for Arafat.

Palestinian leaders, including figures who oversee policy for the PLO and Fatah, the political party headed by Arafat, are to meet today in Ramallah. .

Sun staff writer Mark Matthews contributed to this article from Washington.

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