The Power of Change, or Just a Change in Power?

By Yossi Alpher

Published November 12, 2004, issue of November 12, 2004.
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Who will succeed Yasser Arafat at the helm of the Palestinian national movement? The question is simply impossible to answer.

The predictions we are hearing are based largely on speculation, rather than on substance. In intelligence-community parlance, the prospect of Arafat’s departure from the scene has thrust Palestinian politics and society into a “revolutionary situation” in which the dynamics of power are too diverse to be predictable.

The best we might be able to do in the coming weeks and months is try to understand what is happening as it happens — but certainly not to predict the outcome. That could end up anywhere along a spectrum from, on the one hand, a stable, orderly and moderate succession dedicated to ending the violence and making peace, to a Somalia-like situation on the other.

There is no precedent for an orderly transfer of power among Palestinian leaders. Arafat is only the second national leader the Palestinian national movement has produced in some 85 years of existence; the first was Haj Amin al-Husseini, and after his authority waned in the 1950s, nearly two decades elapsed before Arafat emerged. There are, of course, constitutional provisions for succession in both the Palestinian Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority, but no one seems to take too seriously the potential embodied in Palestinian Legislative Council Speaker Rawhi Fatouh’s interim presidency, or in the holding of presidential elections within 60 days.

The list of potential power actors on the Palestinian scene today is long and very troublesome. There is the by now traditional political spectrum, lead by the PLO-Fatah-P.A. leadership and followed by the Islamic movements Hamas and Islamic Jihad and, to a lesser extent, by left-wing parties like the People’s Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Another cross-section pits “outsiders” — those who returned to the territories in 1994 from exile in Tunis — against “insiders”; this roughly corresponds with the older generation/younger generation gap. Former prime minister Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, and current Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, also known as Abu Ala, who project themselves as Arafat’s legitimate successors in the PLO and the P.A., fit several of these categories. While this could give them an edge, neither appears to display either the fire-in-the-belly or the grass-roots appeal needed by a successful politician anywhere.

There is also a geographic divide — Gaza versus the West Bank — which Arafat alone seemed able to bridge. There are senior PLO/Fatah/P.A. security officials like West Bank strongman Jibril Rajoub and Gaza strongman Mohammad Dahlan, who ostensibly have “divisions” at their beck and call and would appear to be necessary allies for any politician seeking to consolidate his rule. But they could, under certain circumstances, deploy their forces to support their own power ambitions. So, too, could Hamas in Gaza and various Fatah radical-cum-criminal groups in the northern West Bank that have not been under anyone’s control for months.

Suha, Arafat’s estranged wife, is not a candidate for power, but she has shown at least a short-term capacity to make a nuisance of herself and turn the entire succession issue into a soap opera. France, by virtue of Arafat’s presence, has become a player of sorts. Apropos Suha, ostensibly Arafat’s heir, there is the money question: reliable Palestinian sources estimate that Arafat squirreled away well more than 1 billion dollars in donor funds and revenues, and converted them into such diverse investments as ownership of Algeria’s cell phone network; whoever controls them now has access to power and influence. Here the key figure is Mohammad Rashid, a controversial, and non-Palestinian, financial manipulator in Arafat’s entourage.

Then there are the outside actors, each capable of seeking to influence the Palestinian scene. Syria and Hezbollah — read: Iran — have developed strong financial and even operational links to the more radical movements. Egypt, with its interest in ensuring an orderly withdrawal from Gaza, which it once occupied, and Jordan, with long-standing influence among circles in the West Bank — formerly part of the Hashemite Kingdom — cannot and might not wish to avoid the role of powerbrokers.

That leaves the United States and Israel. They could have tremendous influence over the course of events. But it is not enough to counsel that they “do no harm.” Harm could emerge from a hands-off policy.

Does Arafat’s departure from the scene mean that President Bush will finally get seriously involved and seek to embrace a moderate Palestinian leader? How does Israel handle a request from, say, Rajoub to enable him to move a Palestinian police force from one West Bank city to another — Israel controls the space in between — in order to support a particular side in a struggle for power? Under what circumstances does a Bush or Sharon gesture become a kiss of death for a Palestinian moderate vying for authority?

The United States and Israel should stick to issues, not personalities. Bush, at least, has already projected an American vision of a viable two-state solution. If Sharon were finally to adopt a realistic strategy for peace with the Palestinians and offer to coordinate Israel’s departure from Gaza with a moderate and stable Palestinian leadership — even as he proceeds with preparations to do it unilaterally — this might constitute a valid incentive for the Palestinian “good guys” to win the day.

Only Bush could make Sharon do that.

Yossi Alpher, a former senior adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Barak and former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, is co-editor of and

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