The men who could replace Arafat

Analysts say vote is key for credibility of new Palestinian leadership.

Mahmoud Abbas and Ahmed Qureia, the two leaders attempting to step into Yasser Arafat's shoes, face a daunting task: winning the favor of the radical group Hamas, the US, and Israel as they attempt to consolidate power.

Both men are veteran politicians from Mr. Arafat's Fatah movement and are respected internationally for their roles in the 1993 Oslo Agreement with Israel and subsequent negotiations.

But unlike Arafat, or imprisoned Fatah leader Marwan Barghouthi, they have no credentials in the armed struggle against Israel and they lack popularity in the Palestinian street. For this reason, analysts say, they would be best off adhering to legal provisions for elections within 60 days of Arafat's death, which could help them gain legitimacy.

Failure to push for elections, which Israel in the past has opposed and could potentially thwart, "will put a big question mark on Qureia and Abbas's style of ruling and their legitimacy," says Hani Masri, a commentator based in Ramallah. The US stance on elections also will be crucial to shaping Israeli policy, he adds.

Political analyst Khader Abu Abarra, based in the West Bank town of Beit Jalla, adds: "Without an election there could be chaos; everyone could say, 'I am the leader.' If they want a good future for the Palestinian people, they need to hold elections within the 60-day period." According to Palestinian law, Rawhi Fatouh, speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, becomes acting president of the Palestinian Authority prior to elections. However, he lacks a power base in Fatah and his role is seen as symbolic.

Mr. Abbas, deputy to Arafat on the Palestine Liberation Organization executive committee, and Mr. Qureia, the PA prime minister, have already assumed many of Arafat's powers. Abbas handles international affairs and Qureia, finance and security. But in a poll taken in September by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research to gauge support for Palestinian leadership, Qureia and Abbas ranked, respectively, a distant sixth and seventh.

Avraham Sela, a Hebrew University specialist on Palestinians, says Abbas and Qureia are counting on US help in the aftermath of President Bush's reelection. "They want to see if there is any news from Washington," he says. "It could help them if the administration comes with a new initiative. Without this, they could face Israel's building of the [West Bank] wall without being able to provide anything [to Palestinians]."

Abbas, born in 1935 in Safed in what became Israel, was a founding father of the Fatah movement along with Arafat. He served as head of the international relations department of the PLO and started dialogues with dovish Jewish groups. In 1993, he joined Arafat at the signing of the Israeli-Palestinian declaration of principles on the White House lawn. In May 2003, he became the first Palestinian prime minister, after international pressure forced Arafat to accept the post. But amid difficulties with both Arafat and Israel, he resigned four months later.

In an interview in September with Jordan's al-Rai newspaper, Abbas sharply criticized the use of arms during the intifada, saying it failed to topple Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, led to Israeli reoccupation of Palestinian land, and damaged relations with Washington. He called for Palestinian implementation of the road map, which envisions a viable Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel.

Qureia, who was appointed by Arafat to replace Abbas as prime minister, was born in Jerusalem in 1937 and is a banker by profession. During the 1970s, he was responsible for the PLO's economic activities in Lebanon. He negotiated much of the Oslo agreement with his Israeli counterpart, former Foreign-Ministry director-general Uri Savir. Qureia served as speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council from the Palestinian elections in 1996 to 2003.

One of the first orders of business would be to try to get Hamas, a militant group, to agree to a cease-fire, analysts say. Should Hamas suicide attacks against Israeli targets continue, Qureia and Abbas will face intensive Israeli army actions that will disrupt their ability to stabilize their rule, the analysts say. "Hamas is their biggest potential challenge," says Mr. Sela. "If they can convince Hamas to accept an undeclared cease-fire for a few months, other things could fall into place."

But that is not expected to be easy. Arafat formerly denied them anything more than observer status in national institutions. "Now they intend to demand being real participants," Mr. Masri says. "They will preserve their right to carry out operations against Israel if a deal is not reached. Unless there are elections, Qureia and Abbas will not have the clout to prevent this. They will protest, but won't be able to do more."

In Abu Abarra's view, the two leaders will have to move quickly to ease conditions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Years of fighting, incursions, and Israeli movement strictures have left the economy in tatters. "Anyone who doesn't alleviate the suffering of the population will not succeed," he says.

But this will require the cooperation of Israel. Despite official Israeli statements about cooperation with new Palestinian leaders, analysts stress that Mr. Sharon has a negative track record in this regard. During Abbas's brief tenure as prime minister in 2003, Israel barely lifted movement restrictions, kept up army assassinations and refrained from a meaningful prisoner release. "I believe Israel does not want a moderate or any other kind of Palestinian leadership," Masri says.

But Sharon could face domestic pressure for a conciliatory approach to Qureia and Abbas. Yaacov Perry, the former head of the Mossad, told Israel Television Sunday that Arafat's death could be an opportunity to restart peace moves. Qureia and Abbas, he said, "are weak people, but part of their weakness derived from the threatening shadow of Arafat when he was in power.... His disappearance will enable [Qureia] and [Abbas] to gather more strength and be less constrained, but things will also depend on the Israeli side."

Perry termed Qureia and Abbas, and two other leaders expected to play roles in the new era - former Gaza Strip security chief Mohammed Dahlan and former West Bank security chief Jibril Rajoub - as "pragmatic people who want to reach an arrangement." Another key player to watch as Abbas and Qureia try to assert themselves will be the foreign minister, Nabil Shaath, a former teacher and moderate who was also involved in the Oslo negotiations. He also lacks popularity.

Abbas and Qureia can be expected to work together harmoniously, at least in the beginning, Sela says. "They are depending on each other in order to stay afloat ... They understand that unless they appear as a front, they are lost."

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