Author:Venter, Al J.

In the first of a two part series, Al J. Venter looks at the propects for Palestine after PA chairman Yasser Arafat.

Yasser Arafat is not a well man. Those close to him are not prepared to speculate on the level of his blood pressure. What is clear from his occasional appearances is that he is not only frail, but he appears to have Parkinsons disease. Also, he is almost 70 and has been seen to faint in public. Some of his problems were caused by an air crash in Libya six years ago. His injuries were so bad that a few papers carried his obituary.

These days nobody is willing to comment on Arafat's ailments largely because of the almost impenetrable veil of secrecy that has been drawn around him. This is unusual for a leader who, over the years, was a very public figure and constantly in the public eye and one who now needs to bring his own forceful character to bear on the seemingly intractable problems facing the Palestinian nation.

One of his deputies phrased it this way: (Arafat) "is obviously not as strong as he was, but he is by no means past it but he is still travelling, still making decisions." This is true, but the man has also become something of a recluse. We still see him in public, but these days only fleetingly.

What is clear is that when he does eventually follow the road of all men -- and there are many in the Middle East who believe that it could be soon -- the repercussions are likely to be felt throughout the Arab world. Muhammad `Abd Ar-ra `Uf alqudwah Al Husayni -- distantly related to the powerful anti-Zionist grand mufti of Jerusalem, Amin al-Husayni, who died in 1974 -- has never designated a successor. Instead, it is common knowledge that one of his dictator-style traits is to work against anyone within the framework of the PLO who appears to be becoming too ambitious.

A reason for this, undoubtedly, is that in spite of opposition in some quarters (notably, Hamas, within Israeli borders), Arafat continues to enjoy massive traditional support from the people. This was amply demonstrated when the first elections held in Palestinian Authority (PA) administered areas took place in January, 1996. Three-quarters of all Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza turned out and Arafat secured 88 per cent of the vote. In spite of the Hamas boycott -- or possibly because of it -- Fatah won 55 seats in the 88-seat legislative council and Arafat retained chairmanship of the PLO.

The disruptive role of Hamas cannot be discounted for...

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