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Transition from Arafat Rule Offers Opportunities, Challenges


Secretary of State Colin Powell is traveling to Israel and the West Bank next week to discuss the upcoming Palestinian presidential election following the death of Yasser Arafat, and the possible resumption of the peace process. Middle East analysts say the transition from Mr. Arafat's rule offers both opportunities and major challenges for the new Palestinian leadership.

Just hours after the announcement of Mr. Arafat's death, the Palestinian leadership quickly transferred power.

Former Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas became the head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, PLO, Farouk Kadoumi was named leader of Mr. Arafat's Fatah faction, the largest in the PLO, and parliament speaker Rawhi Fattouh was sworn in as interim president.

The Chief Representative of the PLO in Washington, Hassan Abdel Rahman, says while many people predicted that chaos and disorder would follow Mr. Arafat's death, so far the transition has been relatively smooth.

He says this proves the institutions of the Palestinian Authority are working.

"I believe that Yasser Arafat, who was a historic figure, the embodiment of the Palestinian national movement, larger than life and bigger than all the institutions of the PLO and the Palestinian Authority put together, today we do not have any Palestinian leader who is bigger than the institutions," he said. "So the institutions today are much bigger than those who inherited the leadership of the Palestinian people or who succeeded Yasser Arafat."

Many analysts see former Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, who is now the interim leader of the PLO, as the most likely to take on the overall leadership role left vacant by Mr. Arafat's death.

Palestinians have scheduled a vote in January to elect their next president.

Mr. Abbas is a moderate who has denounced violence against Israelis and is currently holding talks with militant groups to help bring about a smooth transition of power.

While he has the support of western leaders, Mr. Abbas does not enjoy widespread popularity or significant political influence among the Palestinian people.

Khalil Jahshan is a Middle East consultant and lecturer in international studies at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California.

Mr. Jahshan says the Palestinian leaders who are trying to fill the void left by Mr. Arafat's death face major challenges.

"It is probably the most critical crisis in the modern political history of the Palestinian people," he said. "The demands that have been placed on the Palestinian leadership as a result of the death of Yasser Arafat are probably the most serious demands ever on a Palestinian leadership. They are unprecedented in their nature. They represent a huge challenge to the current leadership and they are not easy to meet."

Edward Abington is the former U.S. Consul General in Jerusalem, and now works as an advisor to the Palestinian Authority.

Mr. Abington says Yasser Arafat's death offers what he calls a genuine opportunity to end more than four years of bloodshed that erupted when the latest Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation began in September 2000.

Mr. Abington says ending the violence must start with renewed cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian security forces.

"There also is a recognition of a need for a cease-fire and I think that there will be an intensification of efforts with the Egyptians to put in place a cease-fire of all Palestinian factions," he said. "But if that is to last, it has to be matched by a bilateral cease-fire between Israelis and Palestinians."

In what appears to be a change in policy, the Israeli government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has indicated it may be willing to coordinate with the Palestinians on next year's planned pullout of Jewish settlers and troops from the Gaza Strip and small parts of the West Bank.

Previously, Mr. Sharon had rejected any such contact with the Palestinians because he said Mr. Arafat was tainted by terrorism.

While urging the new Palestinian leadership to crack down on terrorists, Mr. Sharon says Mr. Arafat's death could bring about a historic turning point for the Middle East.