When Yasir Arafat became seriously ill in late 2003, Palestinians were near panic for several days. Officials did not know how to handle the crisis. Ahmad Dudin, former Fatah leader in the Hebron region, summed up the dilemma in this way: “The Palestinian Authority has always been a one-man operation. Arafat never really agreed to share power. That is the problem.”[1]

The problem is not just that Arafat has not designated a successor. It is that he has blocked the development of anybody who could be a successor. Equally, he has crippled the creation of institutions that could provide for a smooth transition, promote the development of a new leader, mediate disputes among competing candidates, or check the power of a future dictator.

Although Palestinian politics are often regarded as more pluralistic than those of neighboring Arab countries, they depend upon one man. A Palestinian official once said, “Egyptian politics is like the pyramid: President Husni Mubarak is at the top, and there’s a very wide base. Syrian politics is like the Eiffel Tower: President Hafez al-Assad [today his son, Bashar] is at the top, and there are a few people on each level. Palestinian politics is the shape of Yasir Arafat: Yasir Arafat is Palestinian politics and that’s all there is to it.”[2]

But at some point, Arafat will depart the scene. He is currently seventy-four years old, and while his ill health has often been exaggerated, he cannot be described as a healthy man. What will happen when a transition is forced on the Palestinian movement by his demise?

Speculating on the precise outcome is only of limited value. Much will depend on timing, detail, and even happenstance. It is more useful to ask what the succession dilemma itself reveals about the Palestinian movement, Arab politics, and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The best entry to that question is to focus not on who but rather what would replace Arafat.

Indispensable Man

In a certain sense, Arafat is the Palestinian Authority (PA). Says a pro-reform Fatah official: “This is Arafat’s narcissism. And we are all suffering from it. I am afraid the Palestinian people will still be suffering from it even after his death.”[3] They expect to suffer precisely because Arafat’s departure will leave a vacuum that no other institution or leader will be able to fill entirely. Arafat has had several roles, and in each of them he has had a unique stature.

Arafat as master of public relations. One of Arafat’s greatest abilities has been to symbolize and personify his cause throughout the world. While in recent years his act has worn somewhat thin, and he has been more often criticized, the fact remains that he is the Palestinians’ great asset in maintaining Western sympathy and interest. Any successor would certainly be more obscure and evoke less automatic sympathy. This would weaken the Palestinian cause.

Arafat as monopolist. While nominally the Palestinians have a collective leadership, the reality is that Arafat has overwhelming control over every aspect of their politics (and economics, too, for that matter). Arafat has been the Palestinian movement’s sole leader almost from the day he founded it in 1959.[4] The two persons who had almost equal credentials-Abu Jihad and Abu Iyad-were assassinated. Faisal al-Husseini, the third most impressive figure-and the only major leader to rise to prominence within the West Bank and Gaza Strip-died young. No one else possesses a thorough mastery of the Palestinian scene equal to that accumulated by Arafat, and it may be that no one ever will. His mastery expresses itself in this way: Arafat alone has the power to make everyone obey him, even if he often decides not to exercise this power.

Some argue that an obvious alternative to Arafat would be democracy. But in his absence, it may not be democracy that prevails. More likely are a collective leadership (itself unstable and unlikely to make the necessary tough decisions), a division of power into fiefdoms, or a high degree of anarchy. In a post-Arafat situation, it will be much harder for any successor or successors to impose discipline and hierarchy on the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the PA, or Fatah. What for Arafat would have been a permissible exercise would be for them an apparent power-grabbing attempt that would be fiercely resisted. This will limit any successor’s ability to stop violence, control dissidents, or rule a state. And under such conditions, Palestinian leaders would be hard-pressed to put together the kind of moderate negotiating position necessary to a diplomatic solution.

Arafat as maximalist. A critical reason for the inability to solve the Israel-Palestinian or Arab-Israeli conflicts has been Arafat’s refusal to authorize crucial compromises on such matters as Israel’s legitimacy and Palestine’s borders. Given Arafat’s control over the movement and almost unrivalled stature, he could have downsized the Palestinians’ goals to a state in only part of historic Palestine. But he never took the leap, and the major issues remain unresolved. Even if future leaders want to resolve them, doing so will be far more difficult than it would have been for Arafat. To make matters even worse, under Arafat’s leadership, a whole generation of Palestinians has been thoroughly indoctrinated with the idea that only total victory is acceptable and that advocacy of less than that is treason. This may be the most damaging aspect of Arafat’s legacy.

Aside from policies, Arafat has also constructed the intellectual and psycho-political style of the movement, which is dogmatic and uncompromising. Arafat’s legacy is a political culture in which a leader may portray a disastrous tactic, strategy, or outcome as a victory, and be believed. There is no public price to be paid for continuing wars that cannot be won or making demands that will not be met. It will be very difficult for a different political culture to displace this one.

Arafat as tactician of violence. The legacy of justifying violence without limit is a devastating part of the post-Arafat heritage for Palestinians. Many movements throughout history have used violence, but few have so thoroughly justified and romanticized it as has the Palestinian movement. Even worse, “appropriate” violence has been defined to include the most brutal terrorism and the targeting of everyone defined as belonging to the enemy camp, including even children. After the rationalizations and apologetics (mainly oriented toward the West) are weeded out, the prevailing Palestinian doctrine is basically a pre-justification for genocide.

This problem will not go away when Arafat does. How can someone with less legitimacy than Arafat escape this justification of violence? It is not merely a theoretical problem. Entire groups-Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Fatah’s al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades-and their leaders owe their power to their willingness to kill Israelis. This has become the ultimate measure of political virtue. Only if the security forces are ready to put down these sectors by force, which in itself would intensify the use of violence as a social norm, would there be hope for a change.

Arafat as unifier. Arafat’s refusal to take sides ideologically has helped to create an illusion of Palestinian unity, with everyone dedicated to a single Palestinian struggle. He has achieved this consensus by devaluing statehood as an end in itself. Arafat has built the Palestinian sense of unity on the myth of “recreating” an ideal pre-1948 Palestinian society, on the “right of return,” or ensuring Israel’s disappearance. These are aims that are not going to be realized, but as they have never been subordinated to “ending the occupation,” they form the glue of Palestinian nationalism.

In particular, Arafat simultaneously speaks the language of nationalism and Islamism. His worldview and rhetoric are very much along old-fashioned Islamist lines-that is, more like the Egyptian Muslim Brethren than Hamas. Arafat’s Islamist flavor has ensured him the support of roughly one-half of pious Palestinian Muslims. Arguably, Arafat, and by extension the PLO and PA, have enjoyed more backing from this sector than their explicitly Islamist rivals, Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Nevertheless, there are serious disagreements in Palestinian ranks on ultimate goals, especially between Islamists and nationalists, and these are compounded by factional and personal rivalries. Without Arafat, it would become more difficult to paper over these internal differences. In particular, a successor to Arafat might lose the support of the traditional Islamic sector, with Hamas being the main beneficiary.

Arafat as guardian of independence from Arab states. One of Arafat’s greatest successes has been his countering of efforts by various regimes to control the PLO. Despite the myth of unanimous Arab support for the Palestinians, at any given time several countries subverted the organization while most of the others did relatively little to help it. Arafat gave the Palestinians what they call “independence of decision.” Possibly, the Palestinian movement may be beyond the point where any Arab country (or Iran) can turn it into a satellite, if any of them still want to do so.

However, without Arafat at the helm, it is possible that some states may revive efforts to force the PLO to submit or to split the organization. Iran favors the Islamist groups, Syria the radical ones, while Egypt might try to have a moderating effect. A key consideration would be whether the PLO and PA moved apart in a post-Arafat era (see below). Some candidates to lead the organization-notably the pro-Syrian Faruq Qaddumi-might see Arab states as allies in a post-Arafat battle for power. Arab regimes could pick their favorite faction or leader to support or even finance. This would not produce puppets so much as it would deepen the conflicts and make it harder to establish a stable hierarchy.

In the past, Arafat had leverage of his own over Arab states, but his conduct over the years has eroded it. Still, any remaining Palestinian leverage over Arab states would decline further without Arafat at the helm.

Aside from the points enumerated above, the multiplicity of Arafat’s roles means that there are many different pairs of shoes to fill. Arafat’s jobs include: chairman of the PLO; chairman of the PLO executive committee; “president” of the PA; head of Fatah; chairman of the Fatah central committee; and chairman of the Fatah revolutionary committee. Arafat chooses office-holders in all of these bodies, as well as in the myriad security agencies.

It is quite possible that more than one person might inherit these offices. At the least this would mean a divided authority in which major decisions about tactics, strategy, and peace would be hard to make. Decisions made by someone who is no longer above question or criticism can be disputed. The possibility of a split is especially significant regarding the PLO and the PA. If different people rise to the leadership of each organization, Palestinians outside the West Bank and Gaza Strip may feel free to move in their own direction. If this were to happen, they could disavow any agreement made by the PA based on compromise. This would be especially likely were the PA to deal away the so-called Palestinian “right of return,” since Palestinians outside PA control are almost exclusively 1948 refugees who still demand their “right.” By the same token, these “outsiders” would also be more likely to fall under the patronage of an Arab state.

Thus, the Palestinians have an interest in one person inheriting all of Arafat’s positions. Yet if this were to happen, that individual would become another dictator. This poses a problem for any form of democracy but-more realistically-it would inflame a struggle for power.

Who Will Choose?

According to the draft Palestinian constitution, which was never made into law, the chairman of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) is supposed to assume interim leadership on the demise of the President. Whether such a procedure would be followed is an open question.

The Fatah central committee would be the most likely body to be the real selector of the next head of Fatah. That person would then be the best-situated candidate for becoming head of the PLO and the PA. The committee currently has, excluding Arafat, seventeen members. Of these, three could be called relative moderates: Abu Mazen, Abu Ala, and Nasir Yusuf. It should be noted, however, that the first two men are rivals and are unlikely to support each other.

Of the remaining fourteen, five are hardliners, arguably more militant than Arafat himself: Faruq Qaddumi, ‘Abbas Zaki, Sakr Habash, Abu Mahir, and Salah az-Za’nun. The remaining nine are basically satellites of Arafat with a couple of exceptions. What is especially remarkable is that the body that will choose the next Palestinian leader has no member who rose to his position from the West Bank, and only one who did so in Gaza. (That man, Zakariyya al-Agha, Arafat’s handpicked choice to lead Fatah in Gaza, is very weak.) In short, the old, pre-1994 PLO still controls who will be Arafat’s successor.

The situation is roughly similar on the PLO executive committee. Though one-third of its members are West Bank or Gaza figures, only one or two of them might have some measure of independence. Hardliners easily outnumber moderates.

Possibly, the PNC, or the larger Fatah revolutionary committee-whose members have some grassroots in the West Bank-could play a bigger role in selecting the next Palestinian leader. Yet this broader participation should not be taken for granted.

Ask a Palestinian what will happen, and one will encounter a remarkable degree of wishful thinking. Many Palestinians seem to believe that a leader will somehow emerge by popular acclamation. “In the final analysis,” says Sakr Habash, “the Palestinian people will decide, and Fatah will accept the people’s decision.”[5] But this claim has no basis in reality. Eventually there might be an election, but presumably this would merely be a plebiscite to confirm the choice already made by Fatah. Public opinion has no way to express itself given the absence of a free media, real political parties, or a strong civil society. The public is also extremely divided between militant goals and extremist perceptions on one hand, and a desire for peace and security on the other. Real decisions, then, will continue to come from above.

Leaders and Policies

Who might emerge with the greatest power? This is impossible to predict, but some broad trends can be suggested. The most likely leader would be someone who is male, Muslim, and a Fatah member, who is now residing in the West Bank, where Fatah is strongest.

Potential leaders fall into several categories:

  • A strong reformer. In the older generation this could only be Abu Mazen, a member and secretary of the PLO executive committee as well as former prime minister, while in the younger generation, the most likely candidate would be Muhammad Dahlan, former head of preventive security in the Gaza Strip. Either choice is unlikely. Abu Mazen is at odds with the Fatah bureaucracy because he was seen as excessively moderate; Dahlan has a strong but relatively small base of support restricted to the Gaza Strip.
  • A veteran PLO activist. Qaddumi would be the most notable possibility, and he has a real base of popularity. But he lives in Tunis, outside the PA area. The fact that he is so extreme, however, is a major asset in the eyes of many Palestinians. There are a number of other possibilities in the older generation, many of them equally hard-line.
  • A weak technocrat. Abu Ala might be the most likely selection in this category. He is moderate and comes originally from the West Bank, but he lacks a base of his own, is elderly, and is not in great health.
  • A grassroots favorite. Marwan Barghouti is the best example of this type, representing the younger generation of indigenous West Bankers. He is also a very complex figure. After acting as the single most important military leader of the intifada, he was arrested by Israel and is now in prison. Barghouti’s basic line is that he is willing in principle to make peace with Israel but only after the Palestinians have defeated it militarily. Thus, he could emerge as a new Arafat-leading the Palestinians into decades more of futile armed struggle-or as someone who might someday make peace. However, Barghouti’s base is limited, and he has many enemies.

However, there are also many factions that further complicate the matter. The leader of every security agency-and there are a dozen of them-has ambitions for power. Regional rivalries, most importantly between Gaza and the West Bank, must be taken into account. Nobody has a base of support that stretches through all the territories. Given the prevalence of arms and the lack of mediating institutions, violence is a real possibility.

It is clear that even an emerging new leader will have to pay attention to what other key people and factions think. This is a recipe for deadlock or at least the preservation of the status quo. In other words, the kind of dramatic gestures and difficult compromises needed to achieve peace are unlikely in such a situation. Anyone proposing concessions to Israel knows that his rivals will brand him as a traitor.

During a leadership struggle, moderation is suicidal while militancy-in word or through anti-Israel violence-is a way of enhancing one’s popularity. Promoting attacks on Israel, or at least demagoguery, is also a way of reducing friction within the Palestinian community itself. War on Israel will be seen by many as the route to avoiding a war among the Palestinians. This is also the best way to promote national unity, avoiding the divisiveness of a serious debate over reassessing Palestinian goals and methods.

It is important to remember that to this day, Palestinians have no idea what was offered at Camp David or in the Clinton plan-that President Clinton and Prime Minister Barak offered an independent Palestinian state in all of Gaza, the equivalent of all of the West Bank, most of east Jerusalem, and sovereignty over the al-Aqsa mosque. Palestinians, who are misled to believe that Israel offers nothing but endless occupation, will see continued armed struggle as the only alternative. Told repeatedly that total victory is both just and possible, and informed constantly that the whole world supports them, they are unlikely to opt for a moderate rethinking of their worldview.


In these divisive circumstances, it is likely that the emergence of a new leader will take some years. During the interregnum, the likely outcomes would include deadlock, anarchy, or civil war.

  • Deadlock would mean the continuation of current policies with no one able to take any major diplomatic or political initiative.
  • Anarchy implies the lack of central leadership, with power held in different regions by various local authorities. Security agencies, radical opposition groups, independent Fatah militias, and other forces would work at cross-purposes. In some ways, that would not be very different from the existing situation. Gaza and the West Bank could drift apart from each other.
  • Civil war is the least likely option. This would mean a real battle between would-be rulers and factions for power. Palestinians have a tremendous fear of such an outcome and will do a great deal to avoid it. (Since moderation increases the likelihood of such conflict, it becomes even less attractive.)

Since Fatah would be the main locus for the power struggle, it would face tremendous risks of disintegration or splitting. This threat might force Fatah leaders to pull together. But this is not the view of ‘Abd as-Sattar Qasim, professor of political science at An-Najah University, who argues, “Fatah will definitely disintegrate and polarize into many groups and factions…. In Fatah, there are true patriots. But there are also many hangers-on, opportunistic elements who joined Arafat for purely material gains.”[6]

It would be easy to assume that in any interregnum, a young guard of indigenous West Bankers, veterans of the first and second intifadas, would take power from the old bureaucratic veterans of Fatah and the PLO who returned from abroad in 1994. The problem, however, is that the former group is not united. Barghouti is certainly the most outstanding representative of this trend, but could he really gain power? The security forces’ leaders would not welcome this prospect. Since no one wants a violent showdown, the old-guard establishment is well poised to hold onto power, at least for a number of years.

Another issue would be the role of Hamas. It is probably not in a position to seize control but could play a decisive role as an ally of one faction. One of the biggest changes in the last three years has been a total turnabout in the relationship between the PA/Fatah leadership and Hamas. During the 1990s, Arafat sought to win over and co-opt Hamas and to make it his junior partner-a loyal opposition. Today, however, Arafat and Fatah-and especially Barghouti’s al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades-are in alliance with Hamas. In response, some in Fatah such as Abu Mazen and Dahlan, especially those from the security forces, and the Palestinian Left, fear Hamas might gain in power or even take over some day. Such concerns could also encourage Fatah unity in a post-Arafat era, yet the willingness of Barghouti to cooperate closely with Hamas also poses a major potential threat.

Many Palestinians worry that in such an interregnum, the United States or Israel would have a major influence on the shape of post-Arafat Palestinian politics. Qasim, for instance, says that in Fatah “there are people who work for Israel as well.” ‘Atif ‘Udwan, a political science professor at Al-Azhar University in Gaza, states, “The question of who will succeed Yasir Arafat will not be an exclusively Palestinian affair. There are the Jordanians, the Egyptians, the Americans, and even the Israelis. All those will try to manipulate the post-Arafat arrangements to their favor.”[7]

This concern seems exaggerated, given the total failure of U.S. and Israeli efforts to promote an alternative Palestinian leadership in the past. But such concerns reflect the broader Palestinian fears that the movement will be far weaker and more disorganized without Arafat. The idea of U.S. or Israeli influence is largely a code word signalling opposition to any more moderate policy by a new leader.

A Losing Legacy

Despite many unknowns in Palestinian politics without Arafat, it is reasonable to assert that the movement will be more divided, weaker both domestically and internationally, and probably no more moderate. A period of turmoil, which could be quite extended, will be needed for a new leader to emerge. Moderation will not be an asset for those competing in this contest.

Experience has shown that with Arafat in power, it is impossible to achieve peace. His legacy is the cul-de-sac in which the Palestinians are stuck. Arafat led them to many military defeats, including the failure of guerrilla war in the West Bank after the 1967 war, the defeat by Jordan’s army in 1970, by Israel’s army in 1982, and by Syria’s army in 1983, as well as the failure to liberate any ground through the guerrilla-terrorist war launched against Israel from Jordan and Lebanon. Equally, he lost a large number of diplomatic opportunities ranging from the first Camp David summit of 1978 to the second meeting there twenty-two years later. By exploiting the Oslo peace process, he got back to the West Bank and Gaza but could not turn the agreements into a state. After rejecting the Camp David and Clinton plan offers in 2000 and launching a new war on Israel, he ensured the destruction of all the material gains made by the Palestinians in the 1990s.

Yet Arafat’s departure from power is not likely to drastically change this unfortunate situation. It does happen in history that the departure of a leader opens a new chapter. Almost from the moments Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse-tung, and Gamal Abdel Nasser were buried, their societies underwent dramatic change, which these dictators would have certainly opposed. This is true in a more limited way for Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. However, in all these cases, there was a successor leadership and highly institutionalized structure ready to take over. Palestinians, who possess neither of these advantages, will have a much more difficult task.

There is a profound irony that compounds the tragedy of Arafat. The kind of thinking, system, goals, and tactics Arafat has adopted are those most perfectly suited to maintaining the status quo. They are the strategy of intransigence and continuity. Yet Palestinians are a people in desperate need of change. He will go down in history as the man who put the Palestinians on the political stage. But it will take a very different kind of leadership to effect the most decisive change: getting the state of Palestine on the political map. Thanks to Arafat, that task will be more difficult, not easier, than it would have been just a few years ago.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center of the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya, and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal (MERIA). He is the author (with Judith Colp Rubin) of Yasir Arafat: A Political Biography (Oxford University Press).

[1] Khalid Amaryeh, “Arafat’s Succession Battle Looming,” al-Jazeera (Doha), December 26, 2003.
[2] Interview by author with a top PLO/Palestinian Authority official.
[3] Ahmad Dudin, quoted by Amaryeh, “Arafat’s Succession Battle Looming.”
[4] Arafat did not found the PLO, but it is clearly Fatah from which the modern movement, including the PLO itself-descends.
[5] Amaryeh, “Arafat’s Succession Battle Looming.”
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.