Yasser Arafat has led movements and then an administration - the Palestinian National Authority - representing the Palestinian people. His powerful personality has affected relations with countries on both sides of the broader Arab-Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In the era beyond Mr. Arafat, realities and opportunities could provide new directions both for the Palestinian Authority and its leaders, for whom achieving Palestinian statehood is the goal.
Will a change at the PA's helm help revive Israeli Palestinian peace negotiations? Nathan Brown, with the Washington-based Middle East Institute, says he believes circumstances both afford and compel that opportunity. "What the Israelis have done," he says "is very much personalize the issue with Arafat. Their dispute is with him. So, I think there may be enormous international pressure on them to try and pick up negotiations with the new Palestinian leadership."
Palestinian Authority rules provide for an election not more than sixty days after the office of President becomes vacant. The absence of Yasser Arafat also opens the chairmanship of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization and the head of the largest Palestinian political party, Fatah.
The Washington bureau chief for the Arabic-language al-Hayat newspaper, Salameh Nematt, predicts that early post-Arafat decisions will reverberate for perhaps years to come. He tells VOA "The transition period is going to be important in terms of determining to some extent the outcome of the elections or, at least, some of the factions are going to believe that. And, this is why those who are in charge in the interim period would like to have a wider base of representation possibly including the Islamists and people sympathetic to the Islamic resistance movement."
Palestinian and outside political observers have been putting forth a number of names of possible PA leadership candidates. Nadia Hijab, with the Palestine Center in Washington, outlines her own "short list," led by Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Queria and his predecessor, Mahmoud Abbas. "The two names that are very obvious are Queria he was basically left in charge together with Mahmoud Abbas, who would be leading the PLO itself." She adds "And then you've got the various security chiefs - Jibril (Rajoub) or (Muhammad) Dahlan."
Many put Ahmed Queria at the top of the possible candidate pack because he already holds a signficant and internationally visible PA position. Additionally, as Middle East Institute's Nathan Brown asserts, Mr. Queria's strongest probable challenger may have problems getting support from the Palestinian "street."
"The problem with Mahmoud Abbas is that although he sounded great to an American and to a European audience, he didn't have any constituency among Palestinians and, in fact, he rubbed people the wrong way," Mr. Brown says. "The other problem with him was when he didn't get the support he wanted from various parties, he simply resigned (the Prime Minister's post.)"
Another possible candidate to head the PA is West Bank Fatah official Marwan Barghouti, currently jailed by Israel on terrorism-related charges. Those who mention him say that he and the PA could use his imprisonment much the same as South Africa's Nelson Mandela did to symbolize the struggle of his people. Detractors, however, say that with Barghouti at the helm, Israel could shun him and the PA as it did to Yasser Arafat.
When the election is held, former Israeli Knesset member and peace activist Uri Avnery says the Sharon government should take certain steps to ensure the perception that Israel does not interfere with that process. He wants the Israeli government to "Take the Israeli army out of the Palestinian villages and towns. Remove the roadblocks which make the free movement of Palestinians impossible. And, to allow Palestinian prisoners to vote."
Ever since Yasser Arafat fell ill in October, the Israeli government has largely avoided statements that might be perceived as influencing events and opinions among the Palestinians. However, Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom recently commented that he wants to see "a moderate Palestinian leadership that is taking the lead and moving towards a full implementation of the "Roadmap" (to Middle East peace)." But, as before, Israel also insists that any successor to Yasser Arafat dismantle terrorist groups and put an end to incitement and violence in the West Bank and Gaza. That, according to Uri Avnery, may be a huge -perhaps impossible - challenge.