Barry Rubin is senior resident scholar at the BESA Center for Strategic Studies and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs, an on-line journal at www.biu.ac.il/soc/besa/meria.html. His books include Revolution Until Victory? The Politics and History of the PLO (Harvard University Press, 1994).
Yasir Arafat may yet live a long time but—sixty-eight years old, badly injured in a 1992 plane crash, chronically overweight, known to faint at public meetings—he is not a great actuarial risk. Whether or not any of the specific maladies ascribed to him (including Parkinson's disease) are true, the post-Arafat era of Palestinian politics is now on the horizon.
Arafat's physical condition is an even more important political issue and potential crisis than the fate of most national leaders. Whatever befalls him—and when it does—will have a major impact on the Arab-Israeli peace process and on regional politics.
CHANGED CIRCUMSTANCES AND LEADERSHIP
To understand the dynamics of this process requires a close look at current Palestinian circumstances and how Arafat, chairman of both the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Palestinian Authority (PA), rules. The Israel-PLO agreement of 1993 has caused Palestinian politics to undergo a remarkably extensive, if still incomplete, transformation. These changes include the Palestinian movement progressing:
- From the PLO to the Palestinian Authority as the main institution.
- From pure enmity toward Israel to negotiations with Israel and even a certain amount of quasi-dependence on that country.
- From a revolutionary organization engaged in a war to the death against Israel to a state-in-the-making managing the lives of over two million constituents.
- From exile outside its claimed homeland to a return into that territory.
- From a dependence on violence to an interest in controlling Palestinian terrorism against Israel.
- From viewing the United States as a principal enemy to becoming in some sense an American client.
In the aggregate, these changes leave the leadership with far fewer options than many analysts realize. To understand its constraints, one need merely sit in Arafat's Gaza office and hear Israeli fighter planes flying near-by, listen to his remarks about the PA's total dependence on Israeli-generated electricity, or consider the damage to the Palestinian economy caused by Israeli "border" closures after terrorist attacks.
Despite these constraints, Arafat has managed to win far more direct authority since moving to Gaza than he had during his forty years in exile politics. Before 1994, Arafat had developed a style of leadership suited to his unusual circumstances. His eccentric blend of weakness and perpetual motion helped him survive many severe tests. Historically, Arafat had little or no direct control over most of the member groups in the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). The organization's dispersion in multiple states, decentralization, plus the rampant interference by Arab regimes loosened his control even over his own Fatah movement. Acting in the opposite way from a dictator enforcing discipline and structure, Arafat's indecisive style in setting policy and refusal to impose his power on the PLO's many groups and factions preserved a loose but overriding sense of unity while ensuring his own popularity and legitimacy. With Palestinians so divided, Arafat became the only universally accepted symbol of nation and movement.
As if to make up for all those years of presiding over the anarchic PLO, Arafat now controls almost every decision as well as personally selecting each appointee to PA jobs of any importance. He holds all the reins of power, personally making even the smallest decisions. He transfers and switches officials frequently if he thinks someone is becoming too powerful, wants to reward another follower, or simply wishes to demonstrate his power. Despite the January 1996 elections establishing a Palestinian Assembly and the creation of governmental structures resembling a state, Palestinian fortunes are now tied to Arafat's decisions and character more than ever.
Arafat easily monopolizes decision-making in his small domain. The resulting regime, however, does not resemble a Syrian- or Iraqi-style tyranny; Arafat's models seem to be Egypt and Jordan, his immediate Arab neighbors. The PA can be described as a paternalist, populist, and pluralist dictatorship. Speech is relatively free, with only Arafat himself totally exempted from criticism. Elections take place and a multi-party parliament exists, but the opposition is only allowed to participate in government (seats in parliament, the chance to join Arafat's coalition and have access to government positions) without any chance to control it. Opposition activists and parties receive inducements to let themselves be co-opted; for example, Arafat bought off Hanan ‘Ashrawi with a junior ministry and he split Hamas.
ARAFAT'S MEANS OF RULING
To enforce his will, Arafat has heavily relied on three main tactics: legitimacy, patronage, and repression.
Legitimacy. Arafat's decades of virtually unchallenged leadership and status as founder of the Palestinian state-in-the-making provide him with an enormous political asset. He was long the only imaginable Palestinian leader; now, his role as the PA's chief executive has further entrenched him, as has his recognition in this capacity by the Arab states, Israel, and the United States.
There is an additional, highly important factor. Palestinians' fear that internal conflict might bring civil war and another catastrophic defeat serves as an effective restraint on internal political forces. The opposition is quite aware of the suicidal self-inflicted violence during the 1937-39 uprising and the fratricidal splits which helped lead to the Palestinians' catastrophic 1948 defeat. It does not want to appear responsible for challenging Arafat or undermining Palestinian interests. A case in point was Hamas's temporary retreat from terrorism in 1994-95, when its violence was seen to be slowing Israel's withdrawal from Palestinian towns on the West Bank.
It is important not to be misled by the very real grumbling among Palestinians, understandably dissatisfied by the PA's bureaucracy, corruption and incompetence, as well as by the slow pace of the peace process. Disillusion with a revolution—especially one which has had to tone down its goals so much—is not surprising. But neither is it a sign that the regime will be overturned, for the discontent is not very organized and unhappiness with the government very rarely leads to upheaval. Further, the PA retains a great deal of legitimacy—as well as leverage and power—in Palestinian society.
Patronage. Arafat has increasingly consolidated his rule by keeping close control of rewards (patronage, money, honors) and punishment (exclusion from commercial or job opportunities; arrest or imprisonment). His control over the purse-strings (increasingly from taxation but much more from foreign aid) gives him the power to reward or punish every Palestinian. Those who cooperate can get jobs, contracts, and permits for themselves and their families; opponents get nothing, or may face sanctions against their business, families, and career prospects. Patronage involves corruption, which Arafat spreads widely and has made into an effective tool of political base-building. Ambitious individuals, the Palestinian middle class, and even Hamas' leaders have much to gain from supporting Arafat and too much to lose by antagonizing him.
Repression. Surprisingly, given the regime's background, this factor has so far been less important than the other two. Arafat has tens of thousands of soldiers—officially labeled police—to enforce his will. Such power, of course, is most effective when its very threat deters disobedience. While few are tried in court and sentenced to prison, taking dissidents in for questioning and using physical pressure against some of them effectively makes the point about what might happen to those persisting in their activities.
Arafat's rejection of institutionalization and refusal to create a clear chain of command helps explain why he has refused to name a chief deputy. This approach has its costs—it inhibits continuity, efficiency, economic development, democracy, and discipline—but it is consistent with his approach to power.
Arafat's method of rule also illuminates why he does not even permit anyone to aspire to the position of number-two Palestinian leader. Contrary to rumor and media reports, competition to succeed him is very limited: showing too much interest in this position brings on a strong reaction from Arafat. When Jibril Rajub, the head of Preventive Security in the West Bank, campaigned to make himself Arafat's successor, he was rewarded with a suspension from the PLO's Central Council for six months as a show of Arafat's disfavor. A popular West Bank story points to Arafat's determination to have no understudy: he builds a five-story house, the tale goes, so he tells his lieutenants they can build four-story homes. But each time one of them reaches the third level, Arafat orders him to stop all construction completely.
So complete is Arafat's refusal to delegate power or trust his deputies that nearly all Palestinian Authority activity stops when he leaves the country, even for a day. Further, Arafat often prefers loyalty over competence from his subordinates. Along with Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, he is threatened by energetic men with "lean and hungry" looks, and so prefers the "sleek and fat" men, often corrupt and slothful ones—the careerist PLO officials and the less capable members of wealthy West Bank families.
Potential successors recognize that battling Arafat would be very unpopular and that splitting the Palestinians would weaken their chances of succeeding in negotiations with Israel, perhaps even "giving Israel an excuse" to stop the peace process altogether.
For these many reasons, Arafat remains the Palestinians' only conceivable leader. This said, he is in the twilight of his career and a successor has to emerge. The question is, from what party, sector, and political orientation?
Arafat's successor cannot be identified with any certainty, or the main candidates' chances rated, but the succession issue reveals a great deal about Palestinian factions and power centers. The power groups that will produce that successor—and those which have no chance of doing so—are well-defined. Here are some that will not determine the winner:
Foreign influences. There is already much speculation in Arab circles about outside powers weighing in on the identity of the next Palestinian leader, including wild rumors about the United States and Israel. Suha, Arafat's wife, for example, has said that his death would trigger "a destructive war," fomented by Israel.1 Her reaction reflects a widespread Palestinian sense of weakness, fear of internal division, and difficulty envisioning Palestinian post-Arafat politics. In fact, however, outside powers will probably have very limited leverage over the succession battle. Instead, short of Arafat clearly designating a successor, his heir will be chosen by internal coalitions. The mere suggestion that someone is the American or Israeli favorite would likely destroy his chances.
Hamas. Arafat's successor certainly would not be from the Islamist opposition. Hamas could hope to gain power only via an armed uprising, which it has no intention of trying, if for no other reason than knowing that such a rebellion has little chance of success. Arafat has showed himself able to manage Hamas-sponsored terrorism, either by stopping it 2 or permitting it to happen.3 Hamas controls no part of the government or the military forces. Finally, Arafat's permissiveness toward Hamas—leaving its infrastructure alone and not conducting propaganda against it—has made the organization less willing to confront Arafat's system.
Further, if the Islamists act too aggressively and divisively, they give Arafat or his successor a rationale to suppress them, something that would be widely popular. For although Hamas does have significant support, it is very much in the minority. While support for anti-Israel terrorism has gone up and down among Palestinians depending on the peace process's current situation, backing for Hamas itself has dropped sharply—the most accurate Palestinian public opinion polls seem to show by 40 percent—between 1993 and 1997. In other words, many more Palestinians approve of Hamas's killing of Israelis than support it as a political movement. Meanwhile, Arafat's regime has steadily consolidated control if not always popularity.
This predicament has spurred a sharp debate within Hamas. One line of argument—paralleling the PLO's 1948-74 strategy—demands unlimited armed struggle to sabotage the peace process and destroy Israel. This is especially but not exclusively prevalent among Hamas leaders outside the PA-ruled areas. A second approach—paralleling the PLO's "two-stage" strategy of 1974-93—urges that Hamas cooperate with Arafat to obtain a Palestinian state, then take it over to complete the struggle against Israel (and also make Palestine an Islamic state). The idea is to become a partly loyal opposition, something Sheikh Ahmad Yasin, newly released in October 1997 from an Israeli prison, supported when he said he would work with the PA "to lay the foundations for Palestinian national unity."4
Other opposition groups. Hamas' rival Islamic extremist group, Islamic Jihad, is small and highly factionalized, while its Iranian backing makes it vulnerable to charges of foreign loyalties. The problems of other opposition groups originating from the PLO (the Communist Party, Democratic Party, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine) resemble those faced by Hamas. The radical nationalist groups that historically disregarded Arafat's leadership in the PLO have only marginal popular support. Moderate, pro-democratic forces are weak and divided. And Arafat has so skillfully circumvented and frustrated the Palestinian Assembly that his greatest potential challenger there, Haydar ‘Abd ash-Shafi‘, resigned.
PLO long-time leadership. The PLO's founding generation, most of them about Arafat's age, is gradually passing from the scene. The two most likely heirs from among that veteran group, Abu Jihad (Khalil al-Wazir) (probably the only man Arafat ever envisioned for this role) and Abu Iyad (Salah Khalaf), are dead, both due to violent circumstances. Also, any candidate to succeed Arafat must be active within the PA arena, and this effectively rules out most of the old guard, which came overwhelmingly from the ranks of the 1948 refugees (those from lands that became part of Israel). Remarkably few important PLO figures originated in the West Bank or Gaza, where the Palestinian Authority now rules. The 1948 refugees generally have more difficulty coming to terms with a compromise solution than do natives of the West Bank and Gaza. Faruq Qaddumi, an unreconstructed hard-liner very popular in the PLO, represents this historic establishment. A member of the PLO Executive Committee and vice-president of the Palestinian Economic Council for Development and Reconstruction, Qaddumi opposes the peace process and is close to Syria. But by staying abroad, he has isolated himself and rendered himself largely irrelevant.5
Intifada activists. The intifada generation of leaders is more deeply rooted in the West Bank than are the ex-émigrés from PLO ranks. It is far from ready to assume power, but should Arafat live long enough, it could produce a leader. More likely, the generational transition will take some years.
This leaves three main categories of likely successor:
Technocratic. The weakest claim is made by Abu Ala‘ (Ahmad Quriya), speaker of the Palestinian Assembly. In "constitutional" terms, he is Arafat's designated successor, at least for sixty days after Arafat's demise and until new elections. That Abu Ala‘ is oriented toward economic development would please some among the West Bank and Gaza commercial elite, the "notables." He might also be favored by democratic oppositionists and the young highly educated middle class. Nevertheless, this type of candidate, who seems so appealing to Western journalists, is far less attractive to the masses and power-brokers.
Fatah leadership. Fatah remains by far the most important political movement in the PA areas, but it has not turned into a political party—largely due to Arafat's desire to monopolize power—and its leaders lack clout. They had no say, for example, in choosing parliamentary candidates for the January 1996 elections. Nevertheless, these political figures could unite around a single candidate and work to oppose any ambitious military figure. To some extent, this process has already begun as demonstrated by the PLO's Central Council decision to suspend Jibril Rajub. Mahmoud ‘Abbas Abu (Mazin) would be the likely candidate of Fatah; he has impeccable PLO credentials and (in contrast to Qaddumi) returned to the West Bank to become the chief Palestinian negotiator with Israel. Although born and raised in a town now part of Israel, he represents the Fatah movement as a whole. ‘Abbas, however, is not a charismatic figure and has no political machine of his own.
Palestinian military. The armed forces is a key power center. Their leadership, it bears noting, comes from the regular units of the Palestine Liberation Army, and they have not been involved in terrorist campaigns. Arafat has created many competing military units and constantly shifts their commanders, thus making it harder for any one of them to promote his own candidacy. Col. Jibril Rajub is most often mentioned as having political ambitions and prospects. Rajub has made a special effort to build contacts with Israelis and has sometimes expressed law-and-order sentiments, criticizing Arafat for allowing too much latitude for the violent opposition. At the same time, he has tried to subvert Israeli control over eastern Jerusalem and made clear his support for militant actions to create a Palestinian state. A dozen other officers—for example Yusuf's Gaza counterpart, Col. Muhammad Dahlan, and Public Security Commander Maj. Gen. Nasir Yusuf—might also see themselves as Arafat's successor.
A post-Arafat coup, while possible, would augment internal conflicts and might lead to civil war. Palestinian officers are therefore more likely to take office some day in civilian garb—the Egyptian pattern—or stand as the power behind the throne. Such an event would be more likely if and when a Palestinian state exists, whose existence might permit the armed forces further to develop as an institution.
Of course, there does not have to be a conflict between Fatah and the army. In the long run, they might well unite with each other—or around a specific candidate—based on the need to cooperate against perceived opposition, Israel, and foreign Arab influence. The candidates' personal or political differences are far too limited to trigger violence. Perhaps the most likely outcome would be rule by a blend of politicians and officers, a combination of Fatah and fatigues.
What would be the effect of Arafat being disabled or deceased? The outcome depends a great deal on timing. That Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini lived long enough to decide to end the war with Iraq or that Syrian President Hafiz al-Asad defied predictions of his death to begin negotiations with Israel, while still rejecting a peace agreement, proves this point. The years 1999 and 2000 are a likely turning point for the peace process and Palestinian politics. Were Arafat to pass away during the negotiations or a major crisis in the peace process, the result would be more disruptive than if he dies as president of an independent Palestine, when succession would be more institutionalized.
None of Arafat's likely successors are anyone's puppet. Each of them is determined to preserve Palestinian independence against external forces, be they Western, Israeli, or foreign Arabs. The old worry of the PLO becoming a satellite of Iraq, Syria, or some other radical Arab regime is no longer a serious possibility.
All three of the most likely groups of current candidates are pragmatists, determined to continue the negotiations with Israel. At the same time, though, they share Arafat's goal of an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. Like him, they might be willing to make small concessions on territory if these achieve the main aims. Psychologically, all are less flighty than Arafat. Operationally, they are more realistic than him. Violent conflict among themselves or with Israel seems unlikely.
Despite these continuities and advantages, even a relatively smooth transition would likely do real damage to the peace process and to Palestinian interests:
- The need for a new leader would delay progress in the already sluggish talks for months or more.
- A less accepted leader would produce more internal turmoil, including an increase in attempted terrorist attacks against Israel.
- Long-term feuds would likely begin between the West Bank and Gaza over the distribution of offices and resources; and between such historically competitive towns as Nablus, Hebron, and Ramallah.
- Differences between "insiders" (indigenous residents of the West Bank and Gaza) and "outsiders" (1948 refugees returning from exile) could be a problem, while the loss of Arafat as a symbol of Palestinian unity will widen the gap between residents of the PA and Palestinians living elsewhere, with diverse consequences. In Jordan, this could mean that local Palestinians feel more dependent on King Husayn, hence less willing to dissent openly from him. In Lebanon, local Palestinians would reject the PA and move closer to radical Islamic movements.
Finally, a successor to Arafat would simultaneously be more open to challenge but also tougher. Arafat's successor will have less political invulnerability and leverage. His weaker legitimacy would make his regime more vulnerable to opposition challenges but the new leaders would, if necessary, be more willing to use force against rivals to retain power.
Some Palestinians see the debate over the post-Arafat era as an opportunity to promote greater democracy. Marwan Kanafani, an advisor to Arafat and Palestinian Assembly member who sometimes shows his independence, remarked, "We need a democratic apparatus in order to prevent problems arising in the days following Arafat's departure." Another Assembly member, Hatam ‘Abd al-Qadar , added, "Democracy must reign in the post-Arafat period."6
The need to find a replacement for Arafat would create tremendous insecurity and fear among Palestinians. Yet it is more achievable than many expect. As many countries have discovered throughout history, replacing the founding father is the true test of their ability to survive. For these reasons, the succession would strengthen the Palestinian trend toward a more moderate stance, distribute power more widely, and lead to a more efficient decision-making process.
1 Al-Majalla, Nov. 16, 1997.
2 During February and March 1996, Hamas carried out anti-Israel terrorism against Arafat's wishes, yet unimpeded by his passivity. Seeing the damage these attacks were doing to the peace process and his own hope of gaining more territory under his control from Israeli withdrawals (ironically, they were a major factor leading to the election of Benjamin Netanyahu's conservative government in Israel), Arafat finally stopped them. On which, see Barry Rubin, "External Influences on Israel's 1996 Election," Israel Affairs, Autumn 1998.
3 During the summer of 1997, Arafat gave Hamas the green light to carry out a limited number of attacks which he mistakenly believed would increase his leverage in the peace process.
4 Al-Wasat (Beirut), Oct. 15, 1997, cited in The Mideast Mirror, Oct. 10, 1997.
5 As Danny Rubinstein argued in "Bio Sketch: Faruq Qaddumi, the PLO's #2," Middle East Quarterly, Mar. 1996, pp. 29-32.
6 The Jerusalem Post, Nov. 19, 1997.