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Palestinian official denies report that President Mahmoud Abbas is ailing

Palestinian peace negotiator Saeb Erekat denied reports that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is ailing. But speculation over Abbas' health is a reminder that a change in leadership could throw peace efforts into turmoil.

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Elections for the presidency of the Palestinian Authority were supposed to be held in January 2010 – the expiration of Abbas' five-year term in office. But there is no vote on the horizon because of the unresolved rift between Hamas, which seized control of the Gaza Strip in 2007 and won the last Palestinian parliamentary elections, and Abbas' Fatah party, which held on to power in the West Bank.

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Potential successors

Though Abbas announced at the end of last year that he doesn't plan to seek reelection, he has remained in office to serve out what has become an open-ended tenure in lieu of a rapprochement between Hamas and Fatah. An unexpected resignation by Abbas and pressure for a vote could intensify the standoff between his Western-backed secular government in the West Bank and the Islamist party in Gaza.

What's more, Abbas has no heir apparent – a reminder of the uncertainty following the 2004 death Yasser Arafat. The constitution of the Palestinian Authority doesn't provide for a vice president who can immediately step into the shoes of a head of state, according to Palestinian political experts.

Outside of Abbas, the most popular figure in his Fatah party is Marwan Barghouti, though he was arrested in 2002 and is currently serving consecutive life sentences in Israel for planning deadly attacks during the First and Second Intifadas. Beyond Barghouti there is no consensus on a Fatah leader, accelerating infighting in a party already riven by internal rivalry.

Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh is the next most popular figure after Barghouti, though the US and western allies are likely to boycott a politician from an Islamist party that doesn't recognize Israel. Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is favored in the international community and has been gaining credibility among Palestinians for his plan to create a de facto state by 2011, but he is not a member of the ruling Fatah party.

"There isn't anyone you can identify as the next leader. Palestinians feel insecurity because they don't know who will come if Abbas leaves office," says Mohammed Dejani, a political science professor at Al Quds University. "It will be the same problem as with Arafat."