In response to the al-Aqsa Intifada waged by the Palestinians over the last three and a half years, Israel launched a campaign to remove many terrorist leaders from the Palestinian camp through targeted killings and arrests – with the notable exclusion of Yasir Arafat. As head of the Palestinian Authority, Arafat's power and his ability to lead the war against Israel remain intact. Israel has been forced to wait until Arafat is no longer in charge before negotiations can resume meaningfully. Thus, who will succeed Arafat as head of the Palestinians will shape the future of Israeli policy and the future of Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy.

Arafat's Legacy

As the representative of Palestinian aspirations, Arafat is not only a symbol of a desired independence but he also embodies the narrative of Al-Naqba, the so-called "catastrophe" of Israel's creation. As the leader of Fatah and the PLO, he is the only internationally recognized leader of the Palestinians. Arafat also micro-manages all Palestinian bodies, serving as both decision maker and power broker. Moreover, he is the paymaster and as such the only individual in the PA with complete access to its funds. All of this centrality will disappear with Arafat.

A Popularity Contest

Understanding current trends in Palestinian society may help predict Arafat's successor. The most popular groups in the Palestinian camp tend to be those with the best arsenal and the highest proclivity towards violence against Israel. Leaders also tend to gain veneration in proportion to the time they spent in Israeli prisons. A leader incarcerated for many years appears to be both a hero for enduring his sentence and a man free of corruption due to his detachment from PA affairs. Many of these leaders attain a better understanding of the Hebrew language and Israeli society as a consequence of their time in prison. Lastly, popularity is founded in willingness to show some semblance of opposition to PA corruption and express willingness to help the Palestinian people.

Old Guard versus Hamas

Among potential replacements are the current PLO, PA, and al-Fatah personnel. They represent the "old guard" of the Palestinian movement and have been by Arafat's side since the beginning of his leadership. Over the years, however, many of these figures gained the reputation of being cohorts in a corrupt PA. Some also perceive them as power-centric men who achieve their goals by adhering to the "warlord mentality," striving for total control and favoring preemptive elimination of political opponents. Others are labeled "collaborators" with Israel and have lost major influence in the West Bank and Gaza. These men are unlikely successors and may also vanish at the end of the Arafat era.

The "Young Guard" of the PA represents the West Bank and Gaza leadership. The national narrative of this group is no longer the "Nakba" but the "heroism" of the Intifada. The Achilles' heel of this group is the lack of international political experience or united leadership. No one of these leaders is willing to accept the others' predominance. The outcome would therefore be a loose coalition of "warlords".

In contrast to the current leadership, many Palestinians view Hamas as a viable shadow government supplementing the needs of the people where Arafat and the PA have failed. Recent polls indicate that Hamas enjoys the support of nearly 20-25% of the Palestinian population. Statistically speaking, this figure represents the highest support of any group among the dozens of Palestinian factions. Though this is not a majority, it is united as opposed to the fragmentized PA "Young Guard". Hamas is also not stigmatized by a reputation for corruption. Many view Hamas as a charitable organization focused on donating money for schools and hospitals in addition to providing economic relief for Palestinians in need. Hamas bears the image of helping its people. Moreover, a larger portion of the Hamas popularity stems from its unflinching support and responsibility for violence against Israel by means of suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks.

The absence of a strong PA leadership in the post-Arafat era will strengthen the influence of Hamas and other militias. Although civil strife among them is likely, these factions will cohere in their general support for aggression against Israel.

Possible Leadership Transitions

There are two main scenarios that could result after Arafat's reign.

  • The orderly transfer of power from senior Fatah members to newer Fatah leaders. There will be de facto concessions in which many men will be picked to chair different positions within the Palestinian political spectrum. Unlike Arafat's singular control of all departments, one man will chair the PLO while another heads Fatah. This scenario, however, is flawed because the process of selecting individuals to serve in various positions will cause infighting and political instability.

  • A dog-eat-dog scramble for power. If the succession takes place during a societal conflict like the present intifada, a group like Hamas will most likely inherit more political power. If the succession takes place during a time of active negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian leaderships, there will be more of a tendency to allow the negotiating political leaders to assume some political positions. Even if negotiations are underway, however, power will most likely pass into the hands of violent militias like the Fatah Tanzim, Hamas and other Islamic groups. Each of these will then take control of areas where they are most supported.

In short, neither Fatah nor Hamas has a successor for Arafat who can inherit his functions and authority. The future leadership of the Palestinians will be fragmented and will lack constructive authority (i.e. it may have authority to promote terrorism but not to rein it in). Even if a semblance of succession is achieved, the titular political leaders will not have the real authority on the ground; they will have to strike deals with the warlords and to buy them out. Corruption will continue to be rife and the Palestinians will continue to suffer from their own leadership.

Conclusions

Israel will likely lose any chance of a credible negotiating partner if Arafat's aides lose power to Hamas and other militias, leading to further stagnation in diplomacy. In that case, Arab states may take a more active role in negotiations, one that possibly would include responsibility of joint diplomatic representation along with the Palestinian leaders.

Such changes could lead to pressure on Israel to make gestures to win the Palestinians back to the bargaining table. However, those Palestinian leaders who would negotiate with Israel will not have the authority to reciprocate the gestures. This would have few prospects of success, given that true power will be in the hands of tens of local warlords and not in the hands of the political leaders. It is therefore in Israel's best interests to find an acceptable Palestinian leader and strengthen his position. However, Israel should be careful since many well intended gestures meant to strengthen a Palestinian leader are counter-productive as they brand the leaders as a "collaborator".

Summary account by Ari J. Goldman research assistant at the Middle East Forum