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Arafat Likely To Go Abroad for Medical Treatment

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat may leave the West Bank city of Ramallah to seek medical treatment abroad on Friday. His failing health has caused great uncertainty among Palestinians and has raised serious questions about who might succeed him at the head of the Palestinian leadership.

Palestinian officials gathered at Yasser Arafat's compound in Ramallah throughout the day Thursday. Doctors from Egypt and Jordan were brought in to examine the ailing Palestinian leader.

Later in the day Palestinian officials released a group photo, showing a visibly weak, but smiling Mr. Arafat surrounded by his aides and supporters. The photo appeared designed, above all, to reassure the Palestinian people that Yasser Arafat may be ill, but that he is still hanging on.

Palestinian officials are quick to say that Mr. Arafat is in stable condition and they seem eager to avoid discussion of the looming question of who will take over the Palestinian leadership, should the ageing leader become incapacitated or die.

Palestinian legislator Hannan Ashrawi says that attitude, displayed by those around Mr. Arafat, is understandable.

"They want to make sure that things proceed smoothly, that institutions function and that despite the fact that the president is indisposed that there is a political system functioning and everybody's hopeful that he will recover," he said.

Over the years, Yasser Arafat has made sure he remained the one central figure in Palestinian politics and he never groomed a successor. Despite the fact that Israeli forces have kept him under virtual house arrest in his Muqata compound in Ramallah for more than two years, and despite efforts by Israel and the United States to sideline him, Mr. Arafat remained the undisputed leader of the Palestinians. But, he is 75 years old and has been reported in failing health for some time. So the question of succession is an obvious one.

Several names have been raised as likely candidates. Among the obvious choices would be long-time Arafat associates, Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia and his predecessor Mamoud Abbas.

Israel has long blamed Mr. Arafat for continuing to support violence and has said he is not a proper partner for peace. This has prompted Israel to refuse to resume negotiations with the Palestinians and to instead chart its own unilateral course of disengagement.

Other possible Arafat successors being mentioned include Rawhi Fattouh, the speaker of the Palestinian parliament, former Palestinian Security Chief Mohammed Dahlan and imprisoned Palestinian activist Marwan Barghouti. There has also been talk that a committee might be formed to fill the role-played by Mr. Arafat.

Regardless of who assumes the leadership role, there is enough uncertainty to have prompted a special meeting of Israeli security officials to consider contingency plans.

There is special concern about the Gaza Strip where rival factions have been involved in sometimes-bloody power struggles in advance of a planned Israeli pullout next year. West Bank cities like Jenin and Nablus, where numerous armed militias have established control to one degree or another, are also a major concern.