The Successions of Yasir Arafat

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VOL. 28


No. 4
P. 5
The Successions of Yasir Arafat


For several years now, rumors have been rife about the state of health of Yasir Arafat, now seventy. Even if, as some suspect, Israeli intelligence had a hand in orchestrating the alarmist campaign of fall 1997, so as to unleash power struggles within the Palestinian arena, the consequences of Arafat's disappearance from the scene must be explored. Indeed, in just over three decades Arafat has managed to concentrate such power in his hands that virtually nothing within the Palestinian sphere escapes him. And at a time when the limits of the "peace process" begun in Oslo are only too clear, the Palestinians, and the international community at large, are more than ever in need of a strong and legitimate Palestinian representation.

In the absence of a clearly designated "heir apparent" with the charisma and consensual support needed to lead, it will be necessary to fall back on the legal mechanisms governing succession in the various Palestinian bodies headed by Arafat. Of the some thirty functions he exercises today, the four most important are his leadership of the Executive Committee of the PLO, the State of Palestine, the Fatah Central Committee, and the Palestinian Authority (PA).


The Chairmanship of the PLO Executive Committee

Arafat has been chairman of the PLO Executive Committee (PLOEC) since 1969, and it is to this function that he owes his authority and international recognition.

The PLOEC is called upon by PLO statutes to implement the policy decided by the Palestine National Council (PNC), the "supreme authority of the PLO." [1] According to article 14 of the PLO's Organic Law, PLOEC members are elected by the PNC from within that body, while the PLOEC chairman is elected by the PLOEC itself. At the end of each PNC, in principle held every three years, the Executive Committee submits its resignation and a new committee is elected. If vacancies occur between PNC sessions, article 14 stipulates that they should be filled at the next PNC if their number does not exceed a third of the total PLOEC membership. If a third or more seats become vacant, a special session of the PNC should be called within thirty days to fill them. Finally, if, "for valid reasons," the PNC cannot be convened in special session, the vacancies will be filled by the PLOEC, the PNC's cabinet, and "any Council member able to participate in a joint assembly organized to this end." New members are elected by majority vote.

Arafat was voted chairman of the PLOEC by the Fifth PNC held in Cairo in February 1969, succeeding PLO founder Ahmad al-Shuqayri, [2] and has been regularly reelected since. Also since 1969, Arafat's Fatah, as the largest and most powerful of the Palestinian organizations, has controlled the key posts in the PLOEC, including, in addition to the chairmanship, the political department (foreign relations) and the department of national relations (the equivalent of the interior). The current PLOEC, elected on 25 April 1996, has five official Fatah representatives, including the chairman, and six "independents," who are in fact close to Fatah. The other PLO member organizations--the Palestinian Peoples Party (PPP, former communists), Fida, the Palestine Liberation Front (PLF), the Palestinian Popular Struggle Front (PPSF), the Arab Liberation Front (ALF), the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP)--each have one representative, [3] bringing the PLOEC membership to eighteen.

Presidency of the State of Palestine

In addition to being chairman of the PLOEC, Yasir Arafat is president of the State of Palestine as proclaimed on 15 November 1988 in Algiers by the Nineteenth PNC. The same PNC also decided that "a provisional government for the State of Palestine" should be formed as soon as possible. The PLOEC was charged with forming the government, which had then to be approved by the PLO Central Council (PLOCC). [4] In the meantime, the PNC vested the PLO "with the prerogatives and responsibilities of the provisional government until the formation of this government." In keeping with this resolution, the PLOCC was convened and on 30 March 1989 elected Arafat "president of the state" and Faruq al-Qaddumi (Abu Lutf) "foreign minister" on the proposal of the PLOEC. The elections were confirmed unanimously by the Twentieth PNC held in September 1991 in Algiers, but the provisional government was never formally constituted.

The Leadership of Fatah

Though often billed as the head of Fatah, Yasir Arafat in fact has exactly the same status as all the other members of Fatah's Central Committee (Fatah CC), which, according to article 67 of the movement's Organic Law, is "collectively in charge of all the movement's activities."

According to its statutes, the Fatah CC is no more than the executive instrument of the General Congress, which in principle is the supreme authority of the movement, made up of members of the Fatah Revolutionary Council (RC), regional congresses, military forces, mass organizations, and so on. Between sessions of the Congress, which counted 1,200 members when it was last convened, the "supreme authority" is the 120-member RC.

In practice, however, the Fatah CC has succeeded in monopolizing almost all the organization's powers--indeed, the General Congress, which is supposed to meet every five years, has not met since 1989. The CC has three categories of members. According to article 63 of the statutes, eighteen members are directly elected by secret ballot by the General Congress, while three others are named by these eighteen elected members by a two-thirds majority. The RC has the right to nominate an unspecified number of other members to represent the occupied territories. article 65 requires that candidates for Fatah CC must have been members of the movement "for at least fifteen consecutive years and to have served as secretary of a regional committee or an equivalent function in the various departments and forces."

Ever since it was founded at the end of the 1950s, Fatah has stressed the collective nature, or "democratic centralism," of its leadership. Consistent with this principle, article 63.d of the Organic Law stipulates that "all the members of the Central Committee are equal in rights, duties and responsibilities." Thus, while the CC has a secretary and two deputy secretaries "chosen from among its members" (article 64), there is no legal provision for a president, though article 63.e indicates that "the commander-in-chief presides over the Central Committee meetings and leads its sessions." It is thus in his capacity as commander of Fatah's armed forces, al-‘Asifa, that Arafat can legally claim primacy among his peers. [5] Nonetheless, the title no longer has much meaning since al-‘Asifa was dissolved in March 1990 within Force 17, the "Presidential Guard" recruited from the Palestine Liberation Army.

As for vacancies within the Fatah CC between Congress sessions, article 70 specifies that they be filled by members of the RC by a two-thirds vote.

The Presidency of the Palestinian Authority

In contrast to his position as president of the State of Palestine, Yasir Arafat's presence at the head of the "Executive Authority of the Palestinian Council" is exclusively linked to the Oslo process and therefore limited in theory to the five-year interim period spelled out in the texts. The legitimacy of his PA position derives from two sources: his appointment by the PLO following the September 1993 Declaration of Principles (DOP, also known as Oslo I) and his election by popular vote in keeping with provisions of the "Interim Agreement on the Modalities of Palestinian autonomy" (Oslo II), signed 28 September 1995.

The DOP itself makes no mention of a president, but only of a "Council" to be chosen in "direct, free, and general political elections" (article 3). Preparatory to the inauguration of the Council, the "transfer of authority from the Israeli military government and its Civil Administration" will be "to the authorized Palestinians for this task" (article 6).

It was to designate these "authorized Palestinians" that the PLOCC met in Tunis in October 1993 and charged the PLOEC "with the formation of the Council of the Palestinian National Authority, within the framework of the interim stage," to be composed of PLOEC members and "a certain number of personalities from the inside and the outside." The PLOCC also decreed that "Yasir Arafat, chairman of the PLOEC, will be president of the Council of the Palestinian National Authority." The PLOCC, by calling the new body the "Palestinian National Authority," a name that does not appear in the agreements, thus established a supposed link with the authority called for by the Twelfth PNC held in Cairo in June 1974 "on all parts of Palestinian territory to be liberated."


Oslo II set the framework for the elections that constitute the second and now most important source of legitimacy for the PA presidency: article III.3 stipulates that "The Council and the Ra'ees of the Executive Authority of the Council shall be directly and simultaneously elected by the Palestinian people of the West Bank, Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip," while article III.4 set the term of both as the transitional period not exceeding five years from the signing of the Gaza-Jericho Agreement on May 4, 1994." No provision was made for a presidential vacancy.   

The presidential elections, held in January 1996, were governed by the Palestinian Electoral Law of 7 December 1995. article 9.1 states that to be eligible for the presidency a candidate must be a Palestinian at least thirty-five years of age on the day of the vote, have a residential address "inside the territory," be registered on the electoral lists, and "meet the necessary conditions that entitle him to vote." But while article 1 of the Electoral Law defines the "territory" as the "Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including Jerusalem," article III.1.b of Annex II of Oslo II requires that presidential candidates must have a "valid address in an area under the jurisdiction of the Council" (i.e., areas A or B in Oslo II). article 11.2 of the Electoral Law specifies that "it is not permitted to combine the posts of president of the Executive Authority and speaker of the Council." Arafat was elected with more than 87 percent of the vote.


Although the PNC called for the drafting of a constitution at the same time it proclaimed the State of Palestine in November 1988, it was not until November 1993, just after Oslo, that the PLOEC formed a committee for this task. Anis al-Qasim, the jurist who had drafted the Palestine National Charter thirty years earlier, was named chairman. Oslo II's stipulation two years later that the Palestinian Council adopt a Basic Law for the interim period could thus only confirm the work already carried out by the PLO's legal experts. More than five years after the drafting of the first version and three years after the election of the Palestinian Council, the text has undergone extensive revisions and at least five drafts. [6] The last of these was formally adopted by the Legislative Council in fall 1997, but the text has not been promulgated by Arafat.

In this situation, the Electoral Law is the only legal text in force that deals with the issue of presidential vacancy. (In any case, the two texts are virtually identical with regard to the succession.) article 90 of the Electoral Law (and article 59 of the nonpromulgated Basic Law echoing it) stipulates that the post of president will be considered vacant in the case of death, resignation (which must be presented to the Legislative Council and accepted by a two-thirds majority), or loss of legal competence (as decided by the High Constitutional Court and approved by a two-thirds majority in the Legislative Council). The same article then specifies that in the event of vacancy the president's tasks will be assumed by the Speaker of the Legislative Council "for a period of no more than sixty days, during which elections for a new president will be held."

The close of the interim period on 4 May 1999 without a Palestinian-Israeli final status agreement has resulted in a situation of uncertainty concerning the legitimacy and the future of the institutions linked to autonomy, including the presidency of the PA. This new situation highlights the difference in status between the PA and the PLO and gives logic to the longstanding and repeated demands by Oslo supporters and opponents alike that the leaderships of the two bodies be separated. (Interestingly, no such calls for a separation of powers have been made for the PLOEC and Fatah, undoubtedly because Fatah's control of the PLO since 1969 has not been seriously challenged by any party.) The PA, on the other hand, has been contested since its creation, and the number of its detractors grows steadily as the Oslo process reveals itself increasingly powerless to reach the objectives set by the PLO--obtaining Palestinian national rights. In this situation, it is conceivable that the structures of the PLO, in operation for several decades and enjoying wide international recognition, could recover their primacy and lend stability to the Palestinian political edifice.



Nothing in the structure of the PLOEC points to a successor. The post of vice president was eliminated from the PLO by-laws by 1968, and the position of secretary does not per se give the holder of the post any advantage over his peers. [7] The appointment of an heir apparent would therefore require a deliberate and conscious act on Arafat's part, an act that would be at odds with his traditional policy of playing one PLOEC member off against the others and virtually inconceivable short of a dramatic and irreversible decline in his health.

The current PLOEC was confirmed on 25 April 1996 by the PNC and should have remained in office until the following PNC. But the PNC convened in December 1998 to reaffirm the abrogation of articles of the National Charter required under the Wye accords did not elect a new PLOEC. Given the fundamental decisions that will undoubtedly need to be made in connection with the final status and the eventual declaration of the independence of the state, a new PNC (obliged, this time, to elect a new PLOEC) will probably be called in the not-too-distant future. If something happens to Arafat in the meantime, however, the current PLOEC will be the one in which his successor will be chosen.

According to PLO statutes, a vacancy of the chairmanship of the PLOEC should be filled, at least initially, from within the body through the election of one of its members. Even without an explicit legal obligation, Fatah's historic hold over the PLO and the weakening and division of the opposition make it likely that the contest for chairman will be among Fatah's four official representatives on the committee: Mahmud Abbas (Abu Mazin), Faruq al-Qaddumi, Faisal Husseini, and Zakariya al-Agha.

If the policy of negotiations with Israel and the United States continues, Abu Mazin (born in Safad in 1934) will undoubtedly have the best chance of succeeding Arafat as PLO chairman. He can count on the votes of his Fatah colleagues (except Qaddumi), the independents, and perhaps even of the PLF and PPSF. Though Abu Mazin joined the PLOEC only in 1981, he has been its secretary since April 1996. More important, he is (like Qaddumi) one of the founding members of Fatah. As a drafter (with Nabil Shaath and Ahmad Qurai‘ [Abu `Ala) of the Oslo accords on the Palestinian side and a signatory of the DOP in September 1993, Abu Mazin is, above all, the man of U.S.-Israeli-Palestinian relations. Regionally, while he enjoys a certain influence in Jordan (reinforced by various visits since 1997), Egypt is less than enthusiastic and Syria is outright hostile because of his role in the Oslo process. On the inside, he enjoys important support both in political circles (Marwan Barghouti and the Fatah High Committee of the West Bank) and in security circles (Jibril Rajub, head of Preventive Security in the West Bank, and Muhammad Dahlan, his counterpart in Gaza). His positions make him the candidate of continuity, but his lack of charisma, both among his peers and with the population, leave him little margin of maneuver. His vast new residences in Gaza and Ramallah have not helped quell the widespread suspicions of corruption concerning him and his children.

Qaddumi (born in Nablus in 1931) could become a candidate in the event of a sharp reversal of PLO policy. He has been a member of the PLOEC ever since Fatah took over the PLO in 1969 and in charge of foreign affairs since 1973, first as chief of the political department in the PLOEC, then as "foreign minister" of the State of Palestine. A founding member of Fatah, he is also secretary of the Fatah Central Committee and was seen as Arafat's heir apparent between the assassinations of Abu Jihad and Abu Iyad and the Oslo agreements. His immediate and continuing condemnation of Oslo make him the candidate of the legal opposition, and he maintains close ties with Syria. These elements would play in his favor in the event of a major PLO policy change but would tend to exclude him if present policies toward Israel and the United States are maintained. Even if he did become chairman, his age would make him a transitional figure.

Faisal Husseini and Zakariya al-Agha only joined PLOEC when the last was elected in 1996. They are neither historic figures of the liberation struggle nor Fatah apparatchiks of long standing, and, as notables from the "inside," were installed in the PLOEC when Arafat needed support in the territories. Like other PLOEC members from the inside and, notably, the independents, [8] they lack a "national" constituency, having been chosen to represent a region rather than a political force. It is therefore unlikely that either would win the chairmanship.

Nonetheless, Husseini, being critical of Oslo even while going along with it, could conceivably be a compromise candidate to break a tie between Abu Mazin and Qaddumi. He has a reputation for integrity and is the only committee member who enjoys a certain respect among the Islamists. He also has the prestige of belonging to one of the oldest and most important Jerusalem families [9] and has gained prominence as the PLO's man in Jerusalem and head of Orient House, the official Palestinian headquarters in the city. Arafat, despite deep personal hostility, made him the head of Fatah in the West Bank in 1994, then brought him into the Fatah Central Committee and finally into the PLOEC. Despite these advantages and the contacts he has developed with foreign dignitaries visiting Orient House, Husseini has never really been able to assert authority either within the organization or among the population, and his few attempts to forge ties with the Arab world have been checkmated by Arafat.

Zakariya al-Agha, on the other hand, a medical doctor from one of the largest families in Khan Yunis, appears fundamentally devoid of authority despite Arafat's unconditional support. His nomination in summer 1994 as the head of Fatah in Gaza, followed by his integration ex officio into the Fatah CC, triggered a vast protest within the movement itself, and a number of Fatah high local officials of the "intifada generation" resigned. "Minister" of Housing in the first PA, he ran as a Fatah candidate in the January 1996 elections for the Legislative Council, again on Arafat's insistence, but lost. Even so, Arafat brought him into the PLOEC immediately afterward.

While the PLO by-laws mandate that the chairman of the PLOEC be elected by the PLOEC itself, since February 1983 Arafat has had himself elected directly by the PNC by acclamation. Recently, various high officials have stressed the need for elections by the PLOCC in the event of vacancy. At all events, either the PLOCC or the PNC will have to be convened in such circumstances, either to confirm an internal election of the PLOEC or to resolve any dispute regarding the succession. The quick convening of a PNC, however, would be mired in controversy concerning its composition, especially the contingent from the territories and the representation of the Islamist opposition. This has been a subject of open disagreement between Arafat and Salim Za`nun (Abu al-Adib), speaker of the PNC, ever since the PNC session meeting in Gaza in spring 1996. The hasty convocation of the PNC in Gaza in December 1998 in connection with the Wye agreement did nothing to clarify the issue: as in the 1996 session, the delegates were appointed with total disregard for the organization's procedures and legal bases, and no list of those participating in the vote has been published.

Whoever the new PLOEC chairman, he will have the difficult mission of guiding the transition both between the era of the founders and the younger generation, and between the PLO's adoption of Oslo as its fundamental policy line and its critical position toward (or indeed even break with) the agreement. In what appears likely to be a contest between Abu Mazin and Qaddumi--Abu Mazin being the candidate of a critical continuity and Abu Lutf of rupture--who wins will undoubtedly be determined more by the state of negotiations with Israel at the time than by their support networks.

The State of Palestine

As long as a constitution for Palestine has not been formally adopted by the PLOCC, the only legal reference concerning the state remains the PNC declaration of 1988. Despite its call for the formation of a provisional government, the PNC proposed no timetable, and, contrary to expectations in some quarters, no government was formed to mark the end of the interim period as a means of reaffirming Palestinian national rights. The 1988 declaration makes clear that the PLOCC can vote only on a candidate proposed by the PLOEC, but nothing appears in the organization's by-laws on the eligibility requirements of a candidate. Everything would seem to indicate, however, that the chairman of the PLOEC is the "natural" candidate for the presidency of the state, at least in the present context. The PLOCC's election of the president of the state could thus act as a confirmation or rejection of the PLOEC's choice. In the event that the PLOCC rejects the PLOEC's candidate, the PNC would have to be called to form a new PLOEC, within which a consensual candidate could be chosen.

At the demand of Arafat and of the PLOCC meeting in Gaza in April 1999, a (new) constitution is under study. It will define, among other provisions, the presidency of the state and how the position will be filled, probably through universal suffrage in keeping with the already existing drafts. The constitution will likely remain a dead letter, however, as long as there is no final status agreement with Israel.


Though the Fatah leadership, according to its statutes, is "collective," the principle has not been applied in well over two decades and could not function effectively in a post-Arafat era, especially given the cleavages within the movement. Regardless of whether Fatah's by-laws are amended (which could happen if it becomes, as some members hope, a political party), a leader of the organization will in all likelihood be chosen.

Unlike the PLOEC, which can choose its chairman from among its remaining members without having to fill vacancies beforehand, the Fatah Central Committee is required by its statutes to replace all vacancies immediately with members of the Fatah Revolutionary Council by a two-thirds vote. Thus, in the event of a vacency, some hundred members [10] of the Fatah RC automatically become potential candidates for membership in the Fatah CC. Nonetheless, since the traditional influence of the older members makes it highly unlikely that a newcomer to the Central Committee would immediately be promoted to succeed Arafat, serious candidates for succession are likely already to be members of the Fatah CC.

Today, the only members of the Fatah CC who have served on it from the outset are Yasir Arafat, Faruq al-Qaddumi (who is secretary general), Abu Mazin, and Salim Za`nun. Two other members of the Fatah CC are also considered veterans: Muhammad Ghunaym (Abu Mahir), who joined the Fatah CC in August 1968 and is in charge of mobilization and organization, and Hani al-Hassan (Abu Tariq), who joined the Central Committee only in May 1980 but was active in the movement as of the early 1960s. The other members of the Fatah CC have been in the organization for about a decade, most having joined in August 1989. It was at that time that Intisar al-Wazir (Umm Jihad), currently PA "minister" of social affairs, replaced her husband, Abu Jihad, who had been assassinated by the Israelis the previous year. Likewise becoming members in 1989 were Sakhr Habash (Abu Nizar); Hakam Bal'awi, then Palestinian ambassador to Tunis and today an elected deputy to the Legislative Council for Tulkarm; Tayyib `Abd al-Rahim, then ambassador of Palestine to Yugoslavia and today secretary-general of the PA president's office; Ahmad Qurai`, then director of SAMED, the PLO's financial and industrial organization, and today speaker of the Legislative Council; Colonel Nasir Yusuf, today in charge of the civil police; Brigadier General Muhammad Jihad; and Abbas Zaki, then Abu Mazin's adjunct in the PLO's department of Arab and international relations, today a deputy of the Legislative Council. In May 1991, following the assassinations of Abu Iyad and Abu al-Hul, two new members were named to replace them: Nabil Shaath, a close adviser to Arafat then living in Egypt and today "minister" of planning and international cooperation, and Abdullah Franji, then representative of the PLO in Germany. Finally, in 1994, Zakariya al-Agha and Faisal Husseini became members as heads of the Fatah High Committee of Gaza and the West Bank, respectively. Ahmad `Afana (Abu al-Mu`tasim), assistant chief of staff of the now-dissolved al-`Asifa, is reportedly also a member of the Fatah CC.

Most of the newer members can be eliminated from the running out of hand. Muhammad Ghunaym, though a veteran of the movement, refuses to enter the autonomous territories (as do Muhammad Jihad and Ahmad `Afana). Hakam Bal`awi (born in 1934 near Tulkarm) was frequently mentioned in the past as Arafat's most serious challenger for the Fatah leadership, but he ran up against the sustained opposition of the historic leadership (which prevented him from succeeding Abu Iyad as chief of intelligence upon the latter's assassination in January 1991). The discovery in October 1993 that one of his close associates, who was privy to the internal Palestinian debates on the Palestinian-American negotiations of the late 1980s, [11] was working for the Israelis seems to have discredited him. Ahmad Qurai` never had much support within Fatah, though his position as speaker of the Legislative Council could advance a bid for the presidency of the PA (see below).

Of this group, only Hani al-Hassan (born in 1939 in Haifa) stands a chance of assuming the leadership of Fatah. His good relations with the other members of the Fatah CC and contacts in the United States and the Gulf countries would stand him in good stead, while his critical stance on Oslo is tempered by the fact that he has led several mediation missions on behalf of Arafat from late 1997 to the present. [12] 

Assuming once again the weight of tradition, however, it seems likely that the succession for leadership of Fatah will be played out among the three surviving founders of the organization. Salim Za`nun can probably be ruled out by virtue of his position as speaker of the PNC. Moreover, the possibility that Qaddumi, who has refused to enter the autonomous zones, will get the post are slim. While a PLOEC chairman based outside the territories could be envisioned as symbolizing the unity of the nation, especially in the event of a critical retreat from Oslo, the situation for Fatah is fundamentally different. The dismantlement of Fatah's military wing and the massive integration of its former members into the new security forces of the autonomous territories, combined with the loss of control of the majority of the camps in the diaspora to nationalist or Islamist opponents of Oslo, have virtually eliminated the presence of Fatah outside. In these conditions, the designation at the head of the movement of a personality without any presence inside remains highly unlikely.

By process of elimination, Abu Mazin seems the most likely to succeed Arafat at the head of Fatah. If he does, and if he also becomes chair of the PLOEC, the tradition of combining the two functions (indeed the basis of the transformation of the PLO in 1969) would be maintained. His age, his lack of charisma, and the shakiness of his popular support would nonetheless make him a transitional figure. His mission would be none the less fundamental: to complete the institutional transformation of Fatah from a movement suited to the armed struggle phase to an organization relevant in the new era, capable of defending Palestinian rights in new ways.

The Presidency of the PA

Under the Oslo agreements, the legal existence of the PA institutions, including the presidency, is limited to the five-year interim period which ended on 4 May 1999. Despite the tacit agreement by the two parties to prolong the status quo, the legal situation of the PA remains unclear. To address the issue of Arafat's succession as PA president--a succession that requires popular elections--could therefore appear superfluous, as new elections would imply acceptance by the Palestinians of an almost indefinite extension of the interim period. It nonetheless seems useful to pursue the exercise as a means of exploring possible outcomes in the event of presidential elections inside the territories, whether within the framework of the PA or a state.

Unlike the other leadership positions discussed here, all of which could be filled by quasi co-optations, the presidency of the PA is legally the result of general elections. If new elections are held according to the Electoral Law (assuming the nonpromulgation of the Basic Law), the list of possible candidates with the necessary qualifications would be almost endless. Nonetheless, the fact that each political party can run only one candidate and that Fatah stands at the center of the political arena seems to restrict the list of possible winners to Fatah candidates. [13] 

It should be noted that the January 1996 presidential elections were never seen by the population in terms of a choice [14] --the fact that the only candidate besides Arafat was Samiha Khalil, a respected figure but totally lacking in national scope, would in any case have rendered the choice insignificant. By giving Arafat more than 87 percent of the vote, the population confirmed him in his role as symbol of the liberation struggle for thirty years, as the true locus of power in the Palestinian sphere. At the same time, by giving priority to clan and local allegiances over party or political line in the elections for the Legislative Council, the voters, the candidates, and the PA all demonstrated the extent to which the nation-building process remained incomplete. Far from marking a break with the past by transforming Palestinian politics into a democratic party system, the PA's modus operandi is thus a revival of the "politics of notables," a tradition well adapted to making an unintegrated political society work. The PA, like the Porte in the nineteenth century and later the Hashimite power, operates as a center while the population remains on the periphery, with mediation between the two being assumed by the "neonotables"--the elected Legislative Council members or apparatchiks.

In such a system, there can be no choice of center. [15] The center is--it imposes itself, and the election is but a manifestation of the allegiance from which each hopes to profit later. In January 1996, Arafat's victory as president seemed "natural," his person and offices having long since merged. In new elections, without a consensus candidate at the national level, it will fall to Fatah, as the principal historic movement of the PLO, to make the choice: it is the nomination that would henceforth enable the chosen person to embody the struggle for liberation and continuity in political decision making.

Common sense would seem to dictate that the chairman of the PLOEC should be from the outside, as a symbol of the unity of the people despite their dispersion and of the permanence of refugee rights, while the president of the PA, called upon to govern only in the autonomous territories, should be from the inside. But in the latter case, Palestinian social reality will likely impose a different logic. A candidate from Nablus, for example, would have a slim chance of being elected, since Hebron or Jerusalem would favor their own sons, not to mention the Gaza Strip, always ready to take umbrage at what it perceives as the scorn of the West Bank. Given the extreme segmentation of Palestinian society, only a candidate from the outside would be likely to win the necessary consensus among the electorate inside.

The candidate in question should logically be one of the older and well-known figures of the movement, for it would be incumbent upon him to embody historical legitimacy. Thus, the Fatah CC (possibly reinforced by membership in the PLOEC) becomes the only "natural" source of likely candidates. The name of Abu Mazin appears once again. But, in the event that he would also get the PLOEC chairmanship (and possibly the leadership of the Fatah CC as well), the question of concentration of powers arises, an option clearly not preferred by most political forces. Given the Electoral Law's stipulation that candidates for the PA presidency must maintain a residence in the West Bank or Gaza, Faruq al-Qaddumi cannot be in the running unless the law is changed or he returns, which is highly improbable in the present context (not to mention the fact that his opposition to the Oslo accords, which the PA president is charged with implementing, makes his candidacy contradictory). Zakariya al-Agha can be excluded in light of his defeat in the January 1996 Council elections. Finally, Faisal Husseini's candidacy is subject to the drawbacks already mentioned for personalities of the inside.

Those who remain to be considered are members of the Fatah CC who do not belong to the PLOEC. Ahmad Qurai` (born in 1937 in Abu Dis, near Jerusalem) clearly comes first. As speaker of the Palestinian Council he is called upon to serve as interim president in the event of vacancy, which gives him the advantage of already being in place at the time of the elections. As for Nabil Shaath (born in 1938), the heavy accusations of corruption aimed at him in the Palestinian Council's report of summer 1997 could be considered a virtually insurmountable obstacle.

Given the uncertainties surrounding the future of the Oslo process (despite the election of Ehud Barak as Israeli prime minister), another scenario could be envisaged, wherein the PLO itself would designate a consensus successor to Arafat, probably following secret negotiations with Israel. The precedent would be the situation prior to the 1996 elections. Arafat himself, moreover, a year after his election, mentioned that he had become president of the PA by decision of the PLOCC. [16] Yet another possible scenario would be a new (unilateral) proclamation of a Palestinian state in the absence of an Israeli agreement. The position of PA president in that case would disappear, irrespective of Israel's response.


The rumors about Arafat's health have not unleashed a struggle for succession within the PLOEC, at least as of June 1999. Those legally able to succeed him are few and well known, and though they are cultivating their networks, they have not opened the campaign. [17] 

Within Fatah, on the other hand, the race is already on. This is partly a function of the organization's by-laws, according to which any vacancy within the Central Committee has to be filled before a successor can be chosen, meaning that contenders within the RC from which the vacancy would be filled are already kockeying for position. But it is also a function of the deep cleavages within the movement. Different factions clash or form alliances according to the circumstances without really succeeding in affecting the decisions of Arafat, who has deprived the movement's various bodies of their decision-making capacity.

The General Congress, for example, though theoretically the supreme authority of the movement, according to the statutes, was not even convened to debate the Oslo agreements and has not met in over a decade. Even the Central Committee, the historic leadership of the movement, has de facto lost its role of initiator, and the last vestiges of "collective leadership" ended with the assassinations of Abu Jihad and Abu Iyad. The paralysis derives not only from Arafat's autocratic style, but also, though to a lesser extent, from the discord concerning Oslo: a number of the Fatah CC's leading members, including Faruq al-Qaddumi, Hani al-Hassan, Muhammad Ghunaym, and even Abbas Zaki firmly rejected Oslo at the time, standing against Arafat. In condemning Oslo, they strongly denounced Abu Mazin as the leader of a pro-Israeli trend. This division prevented the Committee from meeting for three years, until August 1996. Even if Zaki, a fierce opponent now only critical, is now settled in Hebron as an elected member of the Legislative Council, and if Hani al-Hassan agreed to carry out certain missions for Arafat, the wound is far from healed. Ghunaym and Qaddumi still refuse to set foot in the autonomous zones, meaning that the rare meetings of the Fatah CC must take place in Cairo or Tunis.

Above and beyond the Oslo split is the split between the inside and the outside. [18] The decision-making power, traditionally monopolized by the outside leadership, is increasingly being claimed by the structures inside. Since the establishment of the PA, still considered of the "outside" despite its five years' residence in Gaza, many of the cadres of the occupied territories have tried to secure an enhanced role in recognition of their contributions during the intifada and their sacrifices in prison. Fatah's High Committee in the West Bank, composed of some forty members and presided over by Faisal Husseini, has been in the forefront of this movement, which has been orchestrated by its dynamic secretary general, Marwan Barghouti. In contrast, the Fatah High Committee of Gaza, composed of some dozen members under the chairmanship of Zakariya al-Agha, has been less visible, partly because a good number of its leaders resigned either to protest al-Agha's appointment as chairman in September 1994 or the secretary general's replacement by Ahmad Hiless in December 1996.

The general demand on the part of the inside for a larger share in Fatah's political decision making has, since 1994, taken the form of a demand for democracy via elections within the movement. In pushing for Fatah-wide elections, the leaders of Fatah's High Committees in the occupied and autonomous territories hoped to transform the movement into a political party while retaining its identity as a liberation movement. On this issue they stand in opposition to another group of Fatah cadres from the inside, slightly older and led by Preventive Security chief Jibril Rajub, that wants Fatah to become the driving force behind the PA among the population. In the first stage of the electoral process, in November 1994, the Barghouti current won the great majority of the seats of Fatah's regional committee for Ramallah, unseating the old political cadres who had been appointed and reducing the stalwarts of the Rajub trend to a minority. As a result of this legal "coup d'état," Arafat immediately suspended other elections within the movement, [19] though some new, strictly local, elections were held in 1998. After his election to the Legislative Council in January 1996, Barghouti resumed his crusade to make Fatah more autonomous, assuming leadership within the Council of a group increasingly critical of the Executive both for its attitude toward the elected body and its conduct of negotiations with Israel. While Barghouti's "insurrection" has gone so far as to threaten a no-confidence motion in December 1997 (later dropped) and to prevent the renewal of Qurai`'s speakership of the Council in Spring 1998, it has never been seen as part of the struggle for the succession of Arafat. The debates it gives rise to, however, are at the center of decisions linked to the future of Palestinian institutions.

On the other hand, during November 1997 when speculation concerning Arafat's health was at its peak, Jibril Rajub, a member of Fatah's RC in addition to being head of Preventive Security in the West Bank, was the subject of wild rumors, including involvement in an imminent coup d'état. In the following weeks, the "problems" of Rajub seemed to have been inflated in the obvious aim of curtailing his appetite for power. Likewise at issue was the respective weight of political and military men within the movement's leadership, a tension that erupted on several occasions in 1997 and 1998 in violent clashes. Even if neither Marwan Barghouti nor Jibril Rajub is able to succeed Arafat at the head of the movement, there is no doubt that they are positioning themselves with this in mind.


No one can say how long Arafat will remain on the scene, but his eventual disappearance raises frightening prospects for almost everyone. While all the Palestinian political forces call for a transition by democratic elections, in reality many fear the truth of the prediction confided to the Arab daily al-Sharq al-Awsat by a prominent Palestinian, who asked to remain anonymous, but who some suspect to be Faruq al-Qaddumi. According to this individual, only Arafat, while still alive, can assure a legitimate transition. "If he disappears, for whatever reason, before the transition is settled, a bloody conflict among Palestinians will follow," he declared, adding that a transition worked out after he is gone would be fatally "illegitimate and weak." [20] 

Short of apocalyptic outcomes, Abu Mazin seems the best placed to assume all or part of Arafat's prerogatives. He is in any case the only one, legally and politically, who can assume the chairmanship of the PLOEC, the leadership of Fatah, and the presidency of the PA. Qaddumi, a potential rival to head the PLOEC and Fatah, is excluded from the presidency of the PA, while conversely, Ahmad Qurai`, potentially well positioned for the presidency of the PA, is legally excluded from the chairmanship of the PLOEC. During 1998, in any case, the fact that the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations were led by Abu Mazin and Qurai` could be an early indication of an eventual division of power.


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Jean-François Legrain is a researcher at France's Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS-Maison de l'Orient) in Lyon, France. His most recent book is Les Palestines du quotidien: Les élections de l'autonomie, janvier 1996 (Beirut: CERMOC, 1999). An earlier and longer version of this article was published in the French quarterly Maghreb-Machrek, no. 161 (April-June 1998).

1. Article 7.a of the Organic Law adopted by the Fourth PNC in July 1968.

2. After Shuqayri resigned on 24 December 1967, the Fourth PNC was unable to agree on a successor, and Yahya Hammuda was appointed to occupy the post on an interim basis.

3. On Palestinian organizations and political parties, see Jean-Franqois Legrain, "Autonomie palestinienne: La politique des neo-notables," Revue du Monde Musulman et de la Mediterranean, nos. 81-82 (1996), pp. 153-206.

4. Given the difficulties inregularly assembling the PNC, an intermediary organ, the PLOCC, was created by the Eleventh PNC, held in Cairo in 1973. Presided over by the speaker of the PNC, the PLOCC originally counted only twenty-one members, all members of the PNC and representing various member organizations. The composition was reworked at the Seventeenth PNC, held in Amman in November 1984, at which time its membership was raised to seventy-two to constitute a kind of mini-PNC. At the PLOCC meeting of April 1999, it counted 124 members.

5. He was also named Fatah spokesman in April 1968 and then chief financial officer.

6. For a comparative analysis of these versions, see Gregory S. Mahler, Constitutionalism and Palestinian Constitutional Development (Jerusalem: Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs [PASSIA], 1996).

7. Jamal al-Surani, for example, who preceded Abu Mazin as secretary before being evicted from the PLOEC in April 1996 for his reservations about Oslo, was never among the "important" members of the body.

8. Five of the six independents are from the inside: Ghassan al-Shak'a, mayor of Nablus and member of the Palestinian Legislative Council; Riyad al-Khudari, president of Gaza's al-Azhar University; Emil Jarjoui, one of Jerusalem's elected Christian representatives on the Legislative Council; the lawyer Yasir Amru, a former Ba'thist; and Muhammad Zuhdi al Nashashibi, "minister" of the economy. In the cases of Shak'a (Nablus), Amru (Hebron), and Nashashibi (Jerusalem), regional solidarity is backed by family influence. The sixth is 'Asad 'Abd alRahman, in charge of the refugee file for the final status talks. Though close to Fatah, none can be considered a serious candidate.

9. He is a descendant of Hajj Amin al Husayni, mufti of Jerusalem and Palestinian leader during the 1930s and 1940s, and the son of 'Abd al-Qadir, hero of the 1948 war.

10. The some eighteen members of the Fatah CC are ex-officio members of the 120-member Fatah RC.

11. Bal'awi, a skilled negotiator, was deeply involved in the U.S.-Palestinian dialogue as PLO ambassador to Tunis.

12. If Hassan seeks the position, he could claim to have already enjoyed the confidence of the Central Committee. In June 1993, the CC named him to head what turned out to be a short-lived national unity committee intended to chastise Arafat, held responsible for the catastrophic fallout during the 1991 Gulf War. The challenge to Arafat at the time was led by Muhammad Ghunaym.

13. Theoretically, a charismatic independent such as Haydar 'Abd al-Shafi could win presidential elections "inside," but it would be highly unlikely. Fatah's identification in the public mind as the embodiment of the liberation struggle and respect for that past would seem to exclude any other winner.

14. See Jean-Fransois Legrain, Les Palestines du quotidien: Les 6lections de l'autonomie, janvier 1996 (Beirut: CERMOC, 1999).

15. Whatever one's reservations about the accuracy of Palestinian polls, those carried out by the Center for Palestine Research and Studies (CPRS) in Nablus on the population's preferences for president and vice president if new elections were held are instructive. A poll 27-29 November 1997, for example, showed that Arafat, with 62 percent of the sampling, was the only one in the running. Shaykh Ahmad Yasin, founder of Hamas, and Haydar 'Abd al-Shafi, the secular opposition figure, each got only 3 percent. No personality emerges as a potential vice president: Abu Mazin and Saeb Erakat were each cited by 5 percent, Ahmad Qurai' and Haydar 'Abd al-Shafi by 4 percent, Ahmad Yasin by 3 percent, Faruq al-Qaddumi and Nabil Shaath by 2 percent.

16. Middle East Broadcasting Centre television broadcast in Arabic from London, 18 December 1997.

17. According to the Jordanian press, Abu Mazin paid a surprise visit to Amman in early November 1997, during which he gave a number of high officials a document entitled "So As Not To Be Surprised by Events," outlining a future formula for Palestinian-Jordanian relations in the post-Arafat era. Qaddumi, meanwhile, has made numerous declarations to the effect that a Palestinian state (as declared in Algiers) already exists, distinguishing it from the PA and stressing its primacy-a discreet hint that he might be prepared to assume the presidency?

18. The inside-outside divide, apparent during the intifada, carried over to competition between the official Palestinian delegation to the 1991-93 peace talks in Washington, composed of negotiators from the inside, and the secret committee of Oslo, composed of close aides to Arafat, all from the outside.

19. Menahem Klein, "Quo Vadis? Palestinian Authority Building Dilemmas since 1993," Middle Eastern Studies 33, no. 2 (April 1997), pp. 383-404.

20. al-Sharq al-Awsat, 25 November 1997. Even Abbas Zaki, whose admiration for Arafat enables him to say that "on the basis of his history, he has the righto have the last word, even when the institutions are in place," believes, like most Palestinian leaders, that "after Arafat, our people can no longer be governed by a single individual." al-Sabil, 2-8 December 1997.