Palestinians are well prepared for the death of Yasser Arafat. Through television reports of foreigners paying homage at Arafat's battered compound and prison, Palestinians have watched their 75-year-old leader degenerate into a feeble, shaking and often incoherent shadow over the past two years. Many Palestinians are also ready for his passing on another level. "The Palestinian people are ready both emotionally and practically," said Qadura Fares, a Palestinian M.P. and senior member of Arafat's Fatah movement.
But Arafat has done little to prepare the system he dominates for his demise. He wields unchallenged authority over every major institution -- the Palestinian Authority, the Palestine Liberation Organization and an array of armed forces -- through a system of loyalty, patronage and fear. He entrenched his control by ensuring that no potential rivals grew strong enough to challenge his authority, and no single figure is likely to emerge to replace him in those roles.
Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian M.P. and former peace negotiator, said that could produce "disorder, rivalries and vying for power" once Arafat is gone. "Arafat is a larger-than-life symbolic leader, which is a rare breed these days. He cannot be replaced," she said. "You must remember that the situation in the West Bank and Gaza has been one of fragmentation and deterioration for a long time now. We cannot predict whether there will be further chaos and deterioration, or whether we will rise to the challenge in front of us."
The political earthquake produced by Arafat's death could open the way for a younger generation of Palestinian politicians intent on breaking with the authoritarian and often chaotic strategies of an administration run as a liberation struggle in favor of more structured and accountable government.
For a while before the latest intifada, the reformists and public opinion had Arafat in retreat. But he thwarted them amid the resurgent violence and the insistence of Israel and the U.S. that the Palestinian leader was the central obstacle to negotiation and had to be removed from power. That only strengthened his control.
Who -- and what -- emerges will play an important role in deciding whether Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister, can maintain his position that there is no one to negotiate with and continue to pursue the "unilateral disengagement plan" that many Palestinians fear is a strategy to rob them of more land. "Arafat's death will remove that roadblock," said Barry Rubin, an Israeli biographer of the Palestinian leader. "The problem then becomes, Will there be a leader or leadership that can make decisions? There is going to be a power struggle, whether you have a leader who wants to make a deal, and whether he can make a deal."
In the event of Arafat's death, the basic law appoints the speaker of parliament as president of the Palestinian Authority for 60 days while elections are held. Arafat's passing would also open a vacancy at the helm of the PLO. It is expected that the PLO's secretary general, Mahmoud Abbas, would be its new leader. Abbas, who briefly served as prime minister last year, is likely to run for the presidency of the P.A. He has the support of many in the Palestinian parliament, and the Americans and Europeans, but lacks backing among the Palestinian security organizations. He may face challenges from younger leaders, such as Marwan Barghouti, the Fatah leader serving multiple life terms in an Israeli prison; Mohammed Dahlan, the former security chief in Gaza, who is favored by Britain; and Jibril Rajoub, Arafat's security advisor.
In recent weeks, Palestinians have been registering in preparation for local elections in December and a presidential ballot scheduled for March. "If the law is followed, I think the change will be smooth and the Palestinians will choose a new leader who will serve them much better than Arafat," said Abdel Jawad Saleh, a Palestinian M.P. and former cabinet minister who broke with Arafat because of the violence and corruption. "But there are other interests at work. The Israelis may not want elections because chaos suits Sharon. He can continue to say there is no one to negotiate with. If the Israelis are interested in elections and they lift the closure and the checkpoints and everybody can move, then I think there can be credible elections."
But if the transition degenerates over the ballot -- or the lack of one -- it is likely that Sharon will keep up his mantra that there is no one to negotiate with. The Palestinian leadership and its rivals in organizations such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad say there is little appetite for civil war. But the Islamist groups may move to consolidate control of areas where they are dominant, driving out forces loyal to the P.A., which they view as a collaborationist organization.
How the P.A. evolves could have a profound effect on Hamas in particular. It has built a political base around the P.A.'s failings, playing on popular resentment of its corruption, inefficiency and the favoring of people and areas linked to Fatah in the delivery of services such as health. If the P.A. continues to crumble, Hamas will be strengthened. But if the patronage and other abuses are curbed, the Islamist groups will be undercut.
The real potential for bloodletting is settling scores against those elevated and protected by Arafat. The anger bubbling under the surface across the Palestinian territories burst to the surface in Gaza last month when the Palestinian leader attempted to promote a cousin, Moussa Arafat, to head the security forces there.