After Arafat

Yasir Arafat appears, once again, to have held off challenges to his rule. But his latest victory does not answer the question of what will happen when he finally does leave the political scene.

When Arafat was seriously ill in 2003, Palestinians were near panic. Ahmad Dudin, former Fatah leader in Hebron, summed up the dilemma this way: "The Palestinian Authority has always been a one-man operation. Arafat never really agreed to share power. That is the problem." Not only does Arafat have no designated successor, but he has crippled the creation of institutions that could provide for a smooth transition, develop new leaders, mediate disputes among competing candidates and factions, or check the power of a future dictator.

But at some point, Arafat will depart. He is 74 years old, and cannot be described as healthy. Arafat's ability to symbolize the Palestinian cause throughout the world has worn thin in recent years, but any successor would be more obscure.

So what will happen when a transition is forced on the Palestinian movement by his demise? The best way to address that question is to focus not on who, but on what, would replace Arafat. In a certain sense, Arafat is the Palestinian Authority (PA). As a pro-reform Fatah official put it: "This is Arafat's narcissism. And we are all suffering from it. I am afraid the Palestinian people will still be suffering from it even after his death." Arafat's departure will leave a vacuum that no other institution or leader will be able to fill. Indeed, Arafat has had several roles, and in each of them his stature has been unique. While nominally the Palestinians have a collective leadership, the reality is that Arafat has overwhelming control. He has been the Palestinian movement's sole leader almost from the day he founded it in 1959. Other contenders, like Abu Jihad and Abu Iyad, were assassinated, and Faisal al-Husseini - the only major leader to rise to prominence within the West Bank and Gaza Strip - died young. Arafat alone has the power to make everyone obey him, even if he often decides not to exercise this power.