With Arafat absent, officials carry on

In France, Palestinian leader has more tests, is said to be feeling better

October 31, 2004|By Tracy Wilkinson and Jeffrey Fleishman | Tracy Wilkinson and Jeffrey Fleishman,LOS ANGELES TIMES

JERUSALEM - Flanking a chair left empty by the emergency medical evacuation of Yasser Arafat, Palestinian officials convened a leadership meeting yesterday in an attempt to allay fears of a power vacuum caused by their president's absence.

It was the first time in 35 years that Arafat had not presided over a meeting of the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization, which serves as the senior decision-making body for Palestinians.

This fact underlined the void left by the decline of Arafat, whose incapacitation foretells an upheaval in Palestinian politics and uncertainty for Israelis. A Jordanian military helicopter evacuated the 75-year-old leader from his battered compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Friday and rushed him to a hospital near Paris.

At the Percy Army Teaching Hospital yesterday, Arafat underwent a second day of numerous medical tests, including a scan for leukemia, one of several cancers or other maladies that his symptoms suggest.

Leila Shahid, the top Palestinian official in France, said that doctors have not determined what is ailing Arafat but that the test results thus far did not show him to have leukemia.

"The doctors excluded for the time being any possibility of leukemia," Shahid said in a brief statement to reporters in front of the white gates of the hospital. "There are many other possibilities."

Doctors say it takes several days to produce the results of a bone marrow biopsy that can rule out leukemia.

When Arafat departed Ramallah, leaving the West Bank for the first time in nearly three years, he was suffering from an intestinal disorder and a low platelet count that prevents blood from clotting. He was said to be disoriented, extraordinarily weak and unable to recognize lifelong colleagues. He had at one point lost consciousness, according to people who were with him. Doctors said the low platelets could be an indication of cancer or other life-threatening illnesses.

Shahid said French doctors would make a public statement on the Palestinian leader's health when tests and scans are completed in coming days.

"We have nothing to hide," she said, adding that Arafat had "a very good night's sleep and woke up in a good mood," asking to speak to his daughter, Zahwa, who is in Tunisia. "He's physically and psychologically better."

In the West Bank, meanwhile, Palestinian officials were keen to broadcast an image of business as usual even though it certainly wasn't, and to show that Palestinian institutions, as weak as they are, continue to function. The Palestinian Legislative Council, the leadership of Arafat's Fatah party and a national security council that oversees all Palestinian police forces were to be convened today, and senior Palestinian officials planned to brief international diplomats tomorrow.

"President Arafat wants us to continue normally, particularly in these difficult circumstances," Mahmoud Abbas, Arafat's No. 2 in the PLO executive committee, said after yesterday's meeting.

Abbas has taken over running the PLO, and Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia has taken over day-to-day management of the Palestinian Authority, both at Arafat's request, officials said.

While the Palestinian Authority is the internationally recognized governing agency for the Palestinian territories, the PLO still eclipses it in real power.

Abbas urged the Palestinian public and myriad factions "to unite and work together so that there will be no pretext that may be used to harm the Palestinian people."

He read from a prepared statement and would not take questions.

At the meeting, held in the same sandbagged headquarters that Arafat had departed the day before, Abbas and others symbolically left the chair at the head of the table - Arafat's chair - empty. Abbas, as secretary-general of the committee, presided.

Palestinian officials are reluctant to make overt plays for power while Arafat is alive and are taking pains to appear respectful and act as though they expect their president to return.

The inevitable post-Arafat period is, for many people on all sides of the Middle East conflict, too scary and unpredictable to ponder. A period of violence and political chaos within the Palestinian territories seems likely.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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