PALESTINE Liberation Organization (PLO) Chairman Yasser Arafat's survival of two potentially fatal crises, in less than two months, has brought to the fore the issue of his succession.
The two incidents, a plane crash over the Libyan desert last April and emergency surgery last week, have alarmed Palestinians about the possibility of a power vacuum in the event of Mr. Arafat's demise.
"I am glad that I do not have to think about what could come after [Arafat]," says Saeb Erekat, a member of the Palestinian negotiating team to the Middle East peace talks, after hearing the news of the success of Arafat's surgery.
Despite the panic that struck Palestinian leaders during the 15-hour disappearance of Arafat's plane and the recent surgery, most of them still avoid discussion of the issue of succession.
"We wonder why everybody is making a big deal out of the succession issue," PLO executive committee member Suleiman Najab observes.
But some Palestinians argue that unless organizational and financial reforms, including powersharing, are put into effect, the PLO's credibility could be undermined among the Palestinians - a result that could shatter the movement after Arafat.
Palestinian officials say only a leader who is elected by Fateh, the mainstream faction headed by Arafat, could be accepted as a successor. The most prominent leaders of Fateh are Farouk Kadoumi, Mahmoud Abbas, and brothers Hani and Khaled al-Hassan, but none of these men rival Arafat's popularity.
Fateh's two strongest leaders, Khalil al-Wazir, known as Abu Jihad, and Salah Khalaf, known as Abu Iyad, were assassinated in 1988 and 1990 allegedly by Israeli intelligence agents and Palestinian renegade Abu Nidal, respectively.
Yesterday assassins killed Atef Bseiso, the second-ranking official in the PLO's security apparatus. Arafat blamed Israel, but officials in Jerusalem denied any involvement.
Perhaps the only other leader who evokes strong sentiment among Palestinians is the leader of the leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), George Habash. But Mr. Habash, often described as "the conscience of the Palestinian revolution," is suffering from poor health and as a leftist and Christian, his leadership is contested by conservatives and increasingly powerful Muslims in the movement.
The reluctance of many senior PLO officials to address the subject reflects the concern that such discussions could trigger a premature power struggle among the various factions and even within Arafat's mainstream Fateh group. The officials are also very cautious not to come across as insensitive or power-greedy in considering their leader's successor while Arafat is still alive.
According to Palestinian sources, Arafat himself strongly resents the repeated questions about succession. "Why is the world now so concerned about who will succeed me? Do they want to get rid of me?" the leader is quoted as saying by Palestinian officials.
Arafat has survived a showdown with the Jordanian Army in 1970, the Israeli invasion of Beirut in 1982, a Syrian-backed military rebellion within Fateh in 1983, and what Palestinians perceive as US, Israeli, and even Arab attempts to find a substitute leader for the Palestinian people throughout the 1980s.
Arafat's leadership is now being challenged by the oil-rich Gulf states, whose leaders refuse to deal with him; they have told mediators they would like to see Arafat replaced.
Furthermore, the fact that the US and Israel refuse to deal with him directly in the peace process is said to have further made Arafat and Palestinian officials resentful of suggestions about changes in the PLO leadership.
Arafat's attitude is also explained, according to people who have known him for a long time, by his refusal to accept that his leadership could end before realizing Palestinian national aspirations. "He always says that he does not want to go down in history as his predecessors, who failed to attain the rights of the Palestinian people," one Fateh official says.
This mentality may explain why Arafat hardly rested after the plane crash, in which two pilots and one engineer were killed, and returned almost immediately to his schedule of constant travel.
Arafat's control of money and power have provoked strong criticism inside and outside the PLO. Over the years he has resisted demands from his colleagues and critics to allow a collective leadership, arguing that such constraints would limit his margin for maneuverability as he struggles to evade Arab and Western attempts to marginalize the PLO.
During a meeting of the PLO Central Council in Tunis last May, Arafat shelved proposals to set up a collective leadership or appoint a deputy.
A prominent official who suggested forming a "presidential office," comprising several vice presidents who would take over in case of an emergency, said his proposals was treated, by some ardent Arafat loyalists, as an attempt to undermine the Palestinian leader.
"Nobody [within the Palestinian movement] should contest the leadership and role of Mr. Arafat. We are putting such proposals because we feel responsible for the future of the PLO and not to challenge" Arafat, says Abdul Jawad Saleh, a former PLO executive committee members, who has been an outspoken critic of the leadership.