Order Code RS21965
November 5, 2004
CRS Report for Congress
Received through the CRS Web
Specialist in Middle East Affairs
Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Division
Reports from Paris on November 4, 2004, that Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat was
near death reopened questions about who would succeed him as President of the
Palestinian Authority, Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), head
of al-Fatah, and President of the unilaterally declared Palestinian state. It is unlikely that
one person would succeed Arafat in all four positions. This report describes the
mechanisms for replacing Arafat in his four positions and lists a few of the many
possible successors. The report may be updated as necessary.
Late October 2004 reports of Yasir Arafat’s failing health opened speculation that
the Palestinian leader had influenza, cancer of the digestive tract, leukemia, gall stones,
intestinal infection, or some unnamed stomach affliction. Tunisian, Egyptian, Jordanian,
and Palestinian doctors reportedly conferred and agreed that Arafat should go to Paris for
treatment of his undisclosed or undetermined malady. On October 29, Arafat was flown
from his Ramallah headquarters, where he had been confined under virtual house arrest
by Israeli armed forces since 2002, to a French military hospital for treatment for a blood
disorder. On November 4, various reports said that Arafat had lapsed into a coma, had
died, or that he was brain dead but surviving on life support systems. The rumors led to
a reexamination of the question — who will succeed Arafat?
The press reported on November 5 that Prime Minister Ahmad Qurai had assumed
some of Arafat’s duties, including control over finances, and that Mahmud Abbas, former
Prime Minister and current deputy head of the PLO, was assuming some of Arafat’s
policy roles. Leaders of Fatah, Hamas, the PLO, Islamic Jihad, and other groups met in
Gaza on November 5 to discuss a post-Arafat transfer of authority. The Israeli press
reported that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have contingency plans to contain public
demonstrations or a Palestinian civil war.
Arafat’s succession has been an issue because of his advancing age (born 1929),
recurring health problems, the apparent palsy and other possible neurological after-effects
of his 1992 plane crash, the reported decline in his popularity among Palestinians, and
recent comments by Israeli leaders that he is irrelevant and that Israel may seek his
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
removal.1 The Israeli right-wing press has called for “action” against Arafat, which some
have interpreted as advocating imprisonment or even assassination.
Current Status and Procedures
Yasir Arafat (a.k.a. Abu Ammar) holds four positions: the elected President of the
Palestinian Authority; the Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO); the
recognized head of Fatah, the largest component of the PLO; and President of the state
of Palestine declared in 1988. Who will replace Yasir Arafat if he should be removed
from these offices for any reason? What procedures exist for replacing the President/
Chairman/leader? It appears unlikely that one person will replace Arafat in all four posts.
Palestinian Authority.2 Yasir Arafat was elected President (“rais” in Arabic,
translated as “boss,” president, or chairman) of the Palestinian Authority (PA) on January
20, 1996, with 87% of the vote. His opponent, Samiha Khalil, entered the race because
she believed a non-competitive election would present a negative image of Palestinian
democracy. Under the Gaza-Jericho agreement of May 1994, the elected President and
Legislative Council were to serve during the five-year interim period from the 1996
elections until May 1999, by which time it was believed that the Israelis and Palestinians
would have negotiated a permanent peace treaty and the Palestinians would have in place
a permanent government that would conduct future elections. The interim period expired
on May 30, 1999, at which time the 88-member elected Palestinian Legislative Council
and Arafat’s term as President presumably expired as well, although no one has
challenged the PLC or Arafat’s remaining in office since then.
The electoral law passed on December 7, 1995, established procedures for the
January 20, 1996 election of the Palestinian Legislative Council and the President. After
the January 20, 1996 elections, the Palestinian Authority Legislative Council (PLC)
passed a Basic Law that provides for elections for the PLC and President. Article 90 of
the 1995 electoral law and Article 59 of the Basic Law are similar; both provide for
filling the office of President if vacated by death, resignation, or judicial removal for
incompetence. The PLC must approve by a two-thirds vote either a resignation or a
constitutional court decision that a President is incompetent to continue in office. Once
the President’s office is vacant, the Speaker of the PLC becomes the acting President for
60 days, during which time the PLC shall elect another President. The current PLC
Speaker is Rawhi Fattuh (alternate spelling Rauhi Fattouh).
Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization.3 The Palestine National
Council (PNC), a 400-member body representing the PLO’s constituent groups, elects an
18-member Executive Committee, which in turn elects a Chairman from among its
James Bennet and Joel Greenberg, “Israel Breaks with Arafat After Palestinian Assault on Bus
in West Bank Kills 10,” New York Times, December 13, 2001; Harvey Morris, “Israel Says It
Will Not Force Arafat Out,” Financial Times (London), December 15, 2001; Matt Spetalnick,
“Attacks ‘Delegitimise’ Arafat — Israeli Army Chief,” Reuters, December 18, 2002.
Succession procedures and issues for the PA, PLO, Fatah, and the state are covered in JeanFrancois Legrain, “The Succession of Yasir Arafat,” Journal of Palestine Studies, vol. XXVIII,
no. 4, Summer 1999, pp. 5-20.
Organization of the PLO can be found at [http://www.palestine-un.org/plo/frindex.html].
members. There is no Vice Chair. In the event of a vacancy, the Executive Committee
presumably would elect another Chairman. Mahmud Abbas acts as Arafat’s second in
command in the PLO.
Leader of Fatah. (Palestine National Liberation Movement, Arabic initials
reversed are f, t, and h, also the root for the word “conquest.”) Fatah members elect a
Central Committee that serves as Fatah’s governing body. The Fatah Central Committee
does not have a leader, chairman, president, or other designated head, but governs through
collective control. Arafat has emerged as the leader, but without the title. It is unknown
how or if Arafat would be replaced as the informal Fatah leader. Recent polls show that
Marwan Barghouti, currently serving an Israeli life sentence, is the most popular figure
among Fatah members after Arafat.4
President of the State of Palestine. The PLO National Council (PNC) elects
from among its members a 124-person Central Council (PLOCC) that acts as an interim
governing body for periods when the PNC is not in session. The PNC declared a state of
Palestine at its November 15, 1988 meeting in Algiers. The PNC then charged the PLO
Central Council with the task of forming a government to represent the new, unilaterally
declared state. On March 30, 1989, the PLO Central Council elected Yasir Arafat to be
the President and Faruk Qaddumi to be the Foreign Minister of the state, but did not elect
any other members of the government. It is not clear if the PLOCC would meet again to
elect a replacement President for the state of Palestine or if the post would remain vacant.
Factors That Could Influence Succession
Several factors could influence succession. Candidates for one position, PLO
Chairman for example, might find themselves competing with a candidate for another
position, such as PA President, in a contest to determine which post is more important or
should have more influence. Some Palestinians may try to avoid a competitive political
campaign for leadership posts out of fear that the competition could degenerate into a civil
war. Other candidates could use the threat of a civil conflict to intimidate the Palestinians
into accepting their leadership.
There is a division between the “insiders” who remained inside the traditional
boundaries of Palestine, endured Israeli occupation, and led the first intifadah (uprising)
against the Israelis, and the “outsiders” who left Palestine for Jordan, Lebanon, or Tunisia
and who returned to Palestine after the 1994 Israeli-Palestinian agreement. The outsiders
— among them Arafat — hold most of the PA posts and the bureaucracy positions.
Another division among Palestinians associated with the militant Islamic organizations,
such as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and the more secular Palestinians may
trigger animosity, oppression of the Islamic minorities, or possibly a civil war. Israeli
officials could influence the selection of a successor by announcing that they would or
would not negotiate with a potential leader or by detaining or arresting a nominee or
candidate they did not favor. Foreign involvement by Syrians, Americans, Egyptians,
Jordanians, or others also could influence succession.
International Republican Institute, “Poll Reveals Support for Elections Among Palestinians,”
September 27, 2004. [http://www.iri.org] or [http://home.birzeit.edu/dsp].
These or other factors could slow a succession process, or even stop the process and
leave the Palestinians leaderless for an extended period of time — say, two years or more.
Similarly, the Palestinian community could remain paralyzed if three or four leaders
emerge from the succession process, with more or less equal capabilities and popular
support, and none is able to lead the Palestinian community.
And finally, it is difficult to predict what effect a succession process might have on
the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which at present is moribund. It appears likely that
the peace process would be on hold during the succession process, similar to the way
peace negotiations have stopped for Israeli elections. With regard to the possible
successors listed below, Qurai, Abbas, and Shaath were involved in the Oslo process and
may be able to find acceptable compromises. Rajub and Dahlan reportedly have been
successful in negotiating security arrangements with the Israelis. Qaddumi and Barghouti
have voiced their opposition to the current peace process. Erikat and Nusseibeh have
taken the position that peace is necessary and negotiable. But, success in the peace
negotiations may depend upon the political climate at the time, popular support for peace,
foreign pressures, and Israel’s commitment to the process.
Mahmud Abbas. (a.k.a. Abu Mazin, various spellings Abu Mazen, Mahmoud)
Abu Mazin was born in 1934 in Safad, was a founding member of Fatah, and has served
as the Secretary of the PLO Executive Committee since 1996. He has a law degree from
Damascus University and a Ph.D. in history from the Oriental College (Moscow). Abbas
was a prime negotiator of the Oslo agreements along with Ahmad Qurai and Nabil
Shaath, and signed the Declaration of Principles in September 1993, and the Interim
Agreement in September 1995. According to some, he lacks the charisma needed to lead
the Palestinians and has been plagued by rumors of corruption triggered in part by his
lavish house.5 According to press reports, Arafat told President Clinton in January 1998
that Mahmud Abbas was his chosen successor.6 Abbas served as Palestinian Authority
Prime Minister from March 19, 2003, until September 6, 2003, when he resigned after
disagreeing with Arafat over control of the security forces.
Ahmad Qurai. (a.k.a. Abu Ala, various spellings Qureia) Abu Ala was born in
1938 near Jerusalem and currently is the Prime Minister, having replaced Abbas in
September 2003. Qurai was elected Speaker of the 88-member Palestine Legislative
Council in 1996, and served in that post until his appointment as Prime Minister. Qurai
was the lead negotiator of the 1993 Oslo Declaration and subsequent agreements and
maintains contacts with moderate Israelis. Reportedly, Qurai has little popular following,
and may be held in disdain by many Palestinians because of his role in peace negotiations
Legrain, “The Succession of Yasir Arafat,” p. 10, op. cit.
Douglas Davis, “Arafat Names Abbas as His Successor,” Jerusalem Post, February 5, 1998;
Christopher Walker, “Ailing Arafat Has Named Moderate as Successor,” The Times (London),
February 6, 1998.
Lee Hockstader, “Emerging Questions: If Not Arafat, Who?” Washington Post, December 20,
2001, p. A36.
Jibril Rajub. (various spellings Jabril Rajoub) Rajub is the chief of Preventative
Security on the West Bank. Now 51 years old, Rajub spent 17 years in an Israeli prison
for throwing a grenade at an Israeli military vehicle. While in prison, Rajub taught
himself Hebrew and English, and studied history. Rajub was the primary Palestinian
representative in talks with Israeli and CIA counterparts on security issues. Rajub supports
a two-state solution, opposes terrorism, and is considered a moderate.
Muhammad Dahlan. Dahlan is 43 years old, and was the Preventative Security
chief for the Gaza Strip and the Minister of State for Security Affairs. Dahlan participated
in the July 2000 Camp David negotiations where he engaged Israeli Prime Minister Barak
in conversations in fluent Hebrew. Some observers consider Dahlan a potential rival to
Rajub. Dahlan was involved in the controversy over who should control the Palestinian
security forces, eventually losing to Arafat’s chosen Chief. But later, Dahlan was named
Minister of State for Security Affairs.
Nabil Shaath. Shaath was born in Galilee in 1938, and earned a Ph.D. in
economics from the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. Shaath is a member
of the Fatah Central Committee, head of the Fatah Advisory Council, and a successful
businessman. Shaath, along with Qurai and Abbas, negotiated the Oslo agreement and
remains involved in peace negotiations with Israel.
Faruk Qaddumi. (a.k.a. Abu Lutfi) Qaddumi was born in Nablus in 1931, was a
founding member of Fatah, and is the head of the PLO Political Department. He was
elected Foreign Minster of the state of Palestine by the PLO Central Committee in 1989.
A hard-liner, Qaddumi does not support the Oslo peace process, and has remained in the
PLO headquarters in Tunis. Qaddumi is not part of the Palestinian Authority.
Saeb Erikat. (various spellings Saib Irikat, Erekat Ereqat, Uraykat, Irikat, etc.)
Erikat was born in Jerusalem in 1955, worked as a journalist for 12 years, and received
a masters degree in political science from San Francisco State University and a Ph.D. in
conflict resolution from Bradford University (England). He was elected to the PLC from
Jericho, and serves as the Minister of Negotiation Affairs in the Palestinian Authority
cabinet. Erikat has been involved in the peace negotiations since 1995.
Marwan Barghouti. (various spellings Bargouti, Barghouthi) Barghouti is 44
years old, from Ramallah, and a Fatah commander. Barghouti heads the Tanzim, a loose
collection of street-wise demonstrators and Fatah fighters, credited with many of the
attacks against Israeli authorities in the al-Aqsa intifadah (popular name for the uprising
that began in September 2000). Israeli authorities arrested Barghouti in April 2002, and
put him on trial one year later for murder and terrorism. Found guilty in May 2004,
Barghouti was sentenced to five consecutive life sentences plus 40 years on June 6, 2004.
Sari Nusseibeh. (various spellings Nusaiba, Nussaybah) In October 2001, Arafat
appointed Nusseibah to be the Palestinian Commissioner for Jerusalem, replacing the late
Faisal Husayni. Nusseibeh is the 53-year old Oxford-educated president of al-Quds
University, known for his outspoken pragmatism. He advocates exchanging Israeli
settlements in the occupied territories for the Palestinian right of return, and has said that
the intifadah was a mistake.