A sharp deterioration in Yasser Arafat's health is forcing the Palestinian Authority to do something it has largely avoided: consider life after Arafat.
"We have no strategic plan for this," says a senior Palestinian security official. "He didn't want any discussion of creating an alternative in case of emergency." The official says security chiefs were only Thursday forming a plan to define responsibility for the head of each security branch if Arafat dies.
The official says that part of Mr. Arafat's reluctance was that grooming a successor would have played into the hands of American and Israeli efforts to sideline him. But, say analysts, there was another motive: keeping power to himself.
Now Palestinians may pay the price for that approach. With infighting and lawlessness in the West Bank and Gaza Strip even before Mr. Arafat's illness, the fear is that a bad situation could get much worse once he can no longer serve as a magnet of loyalty for diverse interests and groups.
"Since he holds all the strings in his hand, his death will create a big vacuum," says Ramallah-based political analyst Hani al-Masri. "Of course the internal conflict will intensify. The question is to what extent." Much depends on Israeli military and political decisions, analysts say.
Arafat, who was chairman of the PLO and head of the Fatah movement in addition to president of the PA, "is a factor for unity," adds Mr. Masri. "He is one centralized power. With his absence power will be decentralized. We could see everything breaking up into local fiefdoms. There will be many parties conflicting until things settle down."
After his two-week illness worsened when he collapsed Wednesday and was unconscious for a short period, Israel agreed Thursday to allow Arafat to be flown to Paris for treatment. This will be the first time the Palestinian leader has left his Ramallah compound in about three years, where he has been confined by Israel.
While Arafat is viewed by the US and Israel as the obstacle to Middle East peace, analysts say his removal from the equation will not spark a peace process because any successor would still be unable to accept Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank.
"Without Arafat the Palestinian movement will not necessarily become more moderate and serious," says Danny Rubinstein, author of a biography of the Palestinian leader. "We can expect chaos and a probable collapse of law and order.... With no symbol like [Arafat], there could be a fragmentation of the society, with every town, tribe and apparatus having its own leader."
Israel is watching the developments closely. "We hope what will emerge is a leadership we can negotiate with, that is willing to do reforms, to stop terrorist activity and incitement," says Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Ariel Sharon.
On paper, there are provisions for succession in the event of Arafat's death. Presidency of the Palestinian Authority would go to the Palestinian Legislative Council speaker Rawhi Fatouh, who would lead for 60 days until presidential elections are held. In practice, a national election is a big question mark, since Israel has thus far opposed it. Analysts believe that Mr. Fatouh, a largely unknown figure, would either give way to Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei or have a ceremonial role only.
Authority would be divided between Qurei and Abbas, each a member of Arafat's old guard and each instrumental in reaching the 1993 Oslo Agreement with Israel, Rubinstein believes. While Abbas especially has a reputation as a moderate, the need to consolidate power "will make him become a hard-liner to win legitimacy." Masri predicts.
In Masri's view, other key players in a post-Arafat era besides Qurei and Abbas will include: Hani al-Hassan, a hard-liner and Fatah central committee member; Nabil Shaath, the foreign minister; Mohammed Dahlan, the former Gaza security chief; Jibril Rajoub, the former West Bank security chief; Musa Arafat, commander of forces in Gaza.
Not to be forgotten is Marwan Barghouti, the jailed Fatah leader, who, according to opinion polls is more popular than any of the others. Whatever evolves after Arafat, it will not be a collective leadership working harmoniously, says Masri, but rather rivals competing with one another or sometimes making alliances with each other.
In the view of Menachem Klein, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv, if Arafat dies, Hamas is unlikely to take advantage of his death and rise up against the PA. "It's too risky for them. They are highly sensitive to being blamed for helping the Zionist enemy." If a new leader proceeds to make large concessions to Israel, however, there could be PA-Hamas clashes, he says.
Israeli policies will be pivotal in influencing how stable the PA is without Arafat, Klein adds. "If there is a situation in which Israel is killing 10 or 15 Palestinians a day it will be very difficult for moderate leaders to build a coalition," he says.
Klein adds that if Israel allows elections, this would reduce tendencies toward Palestinians fragmentation and localism. But he believes Sharon is not interested in the emergence of a strong Palestinian leader. "The current Israeli administration wants to maintain a state of uncertainty because otherwise it will have to negotiate and make concessions."