The Next Palestinian Leader

Who will follow Arafat?

Illustration by Charlie Powell

Israelis no longer prefer the devil they know. After last week’s suicide bombings, Israel’s grudging tolerance for Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat has reverted to loathing. Most Israelis think he’s so untrustworthy that he’s no longer worth talking to. Some Likudniks and hard-liners want him assassinated or at least exiled.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon won’t order Arafat’s assassination anytime soon—the missile that exploded 50 yards from Arafat on Tuesday was a signal, not a miss. The rest of the world, including the United States, wouldn’t brook Arafat’s murder, and Sharon isn’t willing to make his nation a pariah again. Still, Israelis are ready for the devil they don’t know to replace Arafat. Palestinians, too, are worrying about who’s next when the frail 72-year-old Arafat does go, whether by Israeli missile, Palestinian coup, or sickness.

The short answer to the question “Who’s next?” is: Who knows? There’s no obvious heir. The Palestinians are afflicted by too much Arafat. He is the alpha and omega of Palestinian politics. He popularized and legitimized the Palestinian cause. He monopolizes every powerful Palestinian institution: He’s president of the Palestinian Authority, chairman of the PLO, head of the Fatah political party/faction, and principal businessman of the occupied territories. He is the sole unifying Palestinian figure. Even when his popularity drops near 30 percent, as it has recently, he remains rock-steady in power because there is no remotely credible alternative.

Arafat, paranoid that he could be supplanted, has refused to groom a successor. All Palestinian power flows from Arafat, and his fickleness ensures that no one ever accumulates too much. A charismatic rising pol will soon find himself reassigned to a less glamorous post.

But someone has to replace Arafat, and there are certainly plenty of people (well, men) who’d like the job. They fall into three general categories: old-timers, young bucks, and Islamists.

The only Palestinian leaders who have broad credibility, name recognition, and institutional support are the old-timers, the loyal PLO and Fatah cadres who’ve been at Arafat’s side for years.

Abu Mazen (given name: Mahmoud Abbas) is Arafat’s No. 2 in the PLO and was the driving Palestinian force behind the Oslo peace accords. Abu Mazen is a bland, introspective figure. Arafat has cooled on him recently, and his connection to Oslo weakens his street cred these days. Still, he has been with the movement forever, and he has the strongest leadership record.

AbuAla(Ahmed Qurei) is a longtime aide to Arafat, the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, and a former chief peace negotiator. Under the constitution, Abu Ala would become interim president following Arafat’s death, but since the constitution was never ratified, no one knows if the job would actually fall to him. Abu Ala, too, is rather gray, with no core constituency and no warrior credentials.

Farouk Kaddoumi, the PLO’s “foreign minister,” never moved back to the occupied territories from the PLO’s Tunis exile. Kaddoumi is militantly anti-Israeli and hugely opposed to the peace process. He has strong support from Palestinians who remain in exile or in refugee camps, but not much following in the West Bank and Gaza.

Of the three old-timers, Abu Mazen has the best chance to succeed Arafat since he is largely inoffensive to his peers, well-known, and trusted.

But the old-timers have the same problem as Arafat: They’re old-timers. They won’t last more than a few years. The next generation of Palestinian leaders is thin. The most likely to succeed: Mohammed Dahlan, who runs internal security in Gaza, and Jibril Rajoub, who runs it in the West Bank. Dahlan, who was exiled by Israel for radical violence in his youth, is a favorite of Arafat and even a few Israelis. He’s considered by those Israelis “someone who has undergone the cognitive revolution from being a street fighter to someone they can negotiate with,” says Tamara Wittes, director of programs at the Middle East Institute. Rajoub, who was imprisoned by Israel in the early ‘80s, is tough, smart, and rather thuggish.

A third youngster who might push for power is Marwan Barghouti. An organizer of the first intifada and a favorite of the Western media, the 40-something Barghouti is a leader of the Tanzim militia, an offshoot of Fatah. Barghouti has grass-roots support in Ramallah, where he masterminds street battles of the current intifada. But Barghouti doesn’t rate membership in the top echelons of the Palestinian Authority, PLO, or Fatah.

All the young bucks suffer from the same handicap. They are too small. Dahlan, Rajoub, and Bargouti control minuscule regional groups. None has national profile or support.

The Islamists are led by Hamas, the terrorist/political organization. Depending on how the intifada is going, Hamas polls between 15 percent and 30 percent popular support. It’s been high recently. Hamas is headed by the old and sick Sheik Ahmed Yassin. He is an extremely unlikely political candidate, and few of the younger Hamas leaders have a national reputation or political experience. Barring catastrophic upheaval, Hamas is unlikely to take over Palestinian rule.

(The Palestinians most familiar in the West—Hanan Ashrawi, Saeb Erekat, Nabil Sha’ath—are marginal figures at home. They belong to the ever teenier camp of Palestinian moderates and peace supporters. None of them has a chance at national power.)

Why is the list of potential successors so unimpressive? One reason is that the Palestinians have both too few institutions and too many. They have too few in the sense that the democratic, governmental bodies that ought to groom a leadership class are puny. The constitution was never ratified. The Palestinian Legislative Council is virtually a puppet body, too anemic to produce a politician of heft.

The Palestinians have too many institutions in the sense that there are too many sources of semi-legitimate power. The territories are split into the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and each has its own police, security, and governmental structures. The PLO remains a source of authority, so does Fatah, so does Tanzim, so does Hamas. It is a nation of fiefs. Every Palestinian with half a dozen bodyguards thinks he could rule. Dahlan, Rajoub, or Bargouti are unlikely national leaders because they are merely regional warlords. Any attempt to install them over all of Palestine would alienate the losers everywhere else. The old-timers have national and institutional credibility without vitality. The youngsters and Islamists have vitality without national and institutional credibility.

The other great problem for Palestinian succession is symbolic. Arafat has never allowed any of his lieutenants to accrete prestige (with one exception, his beloved deputy Abu Jihad, whom the Israelis assassinated in 1987). Arafat, because he was Arafat, could have made peace at Camp David. He could have surrendered land and the right of return. But Arafat’s heir, no matter who he is, will lack the symbolic capital necessary to make such compromises. Abu Mazen, the most likely successor, holds the same views as Arafat. But Abu Mazen, because he is not the father of the Palestinian people, won’t be permitted to silence dissent, quash Hamas, and make concessions to Israel. “It would take many years before any successor would be entrenched enough to make any tough decisions. The successor will have much less power to decide something than Arafat does,” says Barry Rubin, a scholar of Palestinian politics. Any successor, Rubin says, would be so weak that he would need to rule by committee, and no committee of Palestinians would ever make the concessions Israel requires. (Power is likely to be diffused: Arafat wears all the hats in Palestine. But when he’s gone, one person will be president of the PA, another will head the PLO, etc.)

Unfortunately, the United States and Israel can do nothing to rig the game to improve the chances of a peace deal post-Arafat. Even moderate Palestinians no longer talk to Israelis. The most devastating charge that can be hurled at a Palestinian these days is that he is working with the Israelis. So any attempt by Israel or the United States to influence Palestinian domestic politics will surely backfire, grenading the very people we’d hope to help. We’re stuck with a current leader who won’t make a deal, future leaders who can’t make a deal, and no way to change them.