Saturday, November 06, 2004

Palestinian Leadership Crisis

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has been languishing in a military hospital in Paris for the past several days, and has been described by representatives of the Palestinian Authority as being in a state between life and death.

The truth is probably somewhat worse than that. Some rumours have described Arafat as being brain-dead, his body being kept alive on life-support systems, with arguments between doctors and Arafat's family about when to pull the plug. One probable cause of this is the Muslim tradition that a person should be buried within 24 hours of their death. Arafat's wishes were to be buried in Jerusalem, something the Israelis are loath to allow. So, until they know where Arafat is to be buried, it is unlikely that anyone would consent to pulling the plug or publicly admitting anything close to his being brain-dead.

If Yasser Arafat does pass away, he will leave behind him a power vacuum in the Palestinian territories that will be difficult to fill. While the Palestinian Authority is ostensibily a democracy, Arafat ran it more like a dictatorship; continually acting to consolidate his own power while squelching potential rivals.

The most recent example of this occurred in 2003. In March 2003, under pressure to divest some authority, Arafat named Mahmoud Abbas as Prime Minister. No sooner had Abbas started exercising his newfound authority than Arafat began attempting to eviscerate the power of the new Prime Minister, undermine his authority, and discredit him. Abbas, not willing to allow himself to be setup for such an ignominious failure, resigned in September, 2003 just six months after taking over the post.

A key problem with Arafat's logic is that potential leadership rivals are also potential successors. A truly insightful leader should be able to envision his country beyond his own death, and should ensure that everything is in place for an orderly succession. Arafat's main problem was that he did not trust anyone enough to bestow the type of authority that would allow a potential successor to gain credibility with the various Palestinian factions.

If Arafat dies, what will happen next? The answer to this question will have a significant impact on the future of the Palestinian territories and the Middle East as a whole. The best scenario would be for a single leader to fill this power vacuum and gain credibility for the various Palestinian factions. For sustainable peace to even be a possibility, the Palestinians need a strong leader who can negotiate on their behalf with the Israelis.

A far worse scenario would be if the Palestinian factions cannot agree on a successor to Arafat, and the Palestinian Authority is plunged into infighting. This type of scenario would only prolong the current conflict with Israel and allow chaos to reign in the Palestinian territories until the infighting can be resolved.

A reassuring sign is that Mahmoud Abbas has taken over some key roles, acting as head of the PLO and Fatah in Arafat's absence. Abbas was very smart when he resigned as Prime Minister in September 2003: this allowed him to keep his head up, salvage his dignity, and protect his reputation from being sullied. Abbas's short stint as Prime Minister gave him some exposure to international diplomacy, and allowed him to develop a reputation with the American and Israeli administrations as a reasonable and credible leader. As a result, Abbas would be in a unique position to negotiate a lasting peace agreement with the Israelis if he were elected as the new president of the Palestinian Authority. But, in order to achieve this, Abbas must first undo some of the damage done to his reputation by Arafat, and must gain the support of the Palestinian populace by being seen as a strong leader and not a puppet of either the Israeli or American administrations. Only time will tell whether Abbas will be successful in this exercise.

The next few weeks will be very interesting indeed.