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Palestinian Leader’s Illness Changes Political Equations in Israel

TEL AVIV — After days of furious maneuvering to prepare for the post-Yasser Arafat era, Israelis and Palestinians were waking up this week to the sobering realization that reports of the Palestinian leader’s demise might have been premature.

“Arafat’s prospects for recovery range between full recuperation and death,” Israel’s military intelligence chief, Major General Aharon Ze’evi-Farkash, told the Cabinet Sunday in a much-mocked statement that perfectly captured the deliberations.

Arafat, 75, a dominant figure in the region for four decades, suddenly became ill in his Ramallah compound last Wednesday, October 27, with a mysterious ailment marked by stomach pains, vomiting and diarrhea that at times caused him to lose consciousness. He was flown to a Paris military hospital Friday amid rumors that he was facing imminent death from what was variously said to be leukemia, intestinal cancer or a viral infection.

Arafat appeared to be making progress at midweek, and his aides said that leukemia had been ruled out, but his return to the public arena was believed to be weeks away at a minimum.

Israeli leaders, who never have made a secret of their wish that Arafat would disappear from the scene somehow, responded to his health crisis with unusual restraint. After teams of doctors who rushed to his side from Jordan and Egypt recommended that he be hospitalized outside the region, Israel permitted him to be evacuated Friday by a special Jordanian helicopter. More telling, Prime Minister Sharon gave a personal promise to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak that Arafat would be allowed to return to Ramallah. In the past, Israel has hinted strongly that if Arafat left the West Bank, he would be denied re-entry.

Palestinians, for their part, moved quickly to close ranks around a temporary leadership headed by Mahmoud Abbas, the deputy Fatah leader who resigned a year ago as Palestinian prime minister. Israeli observers were predicting that Arafat’s departure would lead to a violent power struggle among Palestinian factions.

Some observers saw Monday’s suicide bombing in a Tel Aviv market, which killed three Israelis and wounded more than 30, as the first overt act in the Palestinian struggle, a shot across Abbas’s bow by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The front, a once-powerful leftist organization that has seen most of its leaders killed or jailed by Israel, is demanding greater representation in the Palestinian Authority than Abbas has been prepared to grant it. The front is also said by some to be alarmed at the prospect of Abbas using his new authority to move against violence, something he has advocated repeatedly in the past year.

The bombing was condemned by the Palestinian prime minister, Ahmed Qurei, who said it did “not serve our cause amid such a difficult situation,” referring to Arafat’s illness. In Paris, Arafat was said by an aide to have condemned the bombing, as well.

Israeli leaders were unimpressed. Sharon told the Likud Knesset caucus that Israel was not “satisfied with talk, promises and condemnations” and insisted on a “change in Palestinian policy” and “significant steps to eradicate terror.” Some of his allies continued to hold Arafat responsible, as always. “Whether he lives or dies, his spirit of terror is still here,” said Health Minister Danny Naveh.

Opponents of Sharon’s disengagement plan tried to use Arafat’s illness to pressure the prime minister to give up his agenda to achieve unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and from part of the West Bank. After Arafat, they claimed, a sensible Palestinian leadership might emerge with which Israel could work out an agreed process for withdrawal — or not withdraw at all, as the right wing hopes. After all, Sharon and his spokesmen all justified the plan by saying there is no partner — and now there might be one.

Ze’evi-Farkash told a Knesset committee Tuesday that the interim Palestinian leadership under Abbas would pressure Israel through third parties, including the United Nations, to make the unilateral withdrawal a bilateral, negotiated process.

Sharon, however, made it clear that he plans to go ahead with the undertaking. In fact, he seemed even keener on emphasizing its unilateral aspect.

Ze’evi-Farkash said Abbas was an opponent of terrorism and would work to renew the hudna, or cease-fire, that he negotiated with Hamas a year ago. Arafat’s death, he said, could be a watershed event of historic proportions for Palestinians because he was the sole leader for generations. The transition to a new leadership will therefore be traumatic for the Palestinian public, he said, and will have to take place in a gradual and cautious manner, following an interim period of collective leadership around Abbas.

Palestinian leaders publicly insisted that they expected Arafat to make a full recovery, and they cautioned foreign leaders not to embrace them so as not to undermine them in the eyes of the Palestinian public. At the same time, they moved quickly to implement some reforms, including a stepping up of security activities in the West Bank and in Gaza. They also prepared to send a delegation to Jordan next week to get ready for a planned December conference of donor nations, which is to discuss the Sharon disengagement plan. Arafat had vetoed Palestinian participation in the conference.

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