My barber, Abu Salah couldn’t wait for me to come to his shop. He had been very concerned this week and wanted an answer to his question. He was searching hard in his mind for a solution to what he felt was a complicated problem: how could Marwan Barghouthi spring out from the Israeli jail he is kept in. Abu Salah felt relieved when I explained that Hizbollah could answer his riddle. The Lebanese resistance group still has bodies of Israeli soldiers that they could trade with the Israelis for the remaining Lebanese hostages, as well as some Palestinian prisoners, possibly Barghouthi.
The long-shot hope that many pin on Barghouthi is not limited to my barber. After wanting to know about the health of their president, many Palestinians, both inside and outside the occupied territories, had the issue of succession on their minds.
The many different posts that Arafat held provided both a problem and solution. Arafat is the chair of the PLO Executive Committee, the president of Palestine and the head of the Palestinian National Authority. He is also the commander-in-chief of the Palestinian security forces, and is said to have control over PLO funds which are naturally outside the control of the Palestinian minister of finance.
The first problem facing the leadership left behind after Arafat was flown by helicopter from the Muqata in Ramallah had to do with titles. Should any leader be given the title interim or acting? For the PLO Executive Committee the problem was solved because Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) was the secretary general of the committee and therefore he kept his title and became the de facto head of the PLO Executive Committee even if he wasn’t given the title of acting head of the committee. With the PNA there was no problem because Ahmad Qureia continues to be the prime minister and in that position he heads Cabinet meetings.
The first problem, however occurred when the National Security Council (NSC) met Saturday. Taeb Abdel Rahim, a senior Palestinian leader and member of the Fatah central committee, has become a sort of reference point in the Muqata for issues not clearly the domain of either Abbas or Qureia. When drawing up the official minutes of the NSC meeting, he clashed with Ahmad Abdel Rahman, one of Arafat’s advisors, as to how to refer to Qureia. Abdel Rahman wanted to state that the meeting was led by Qureia who is the deputy head of the NSC. Abdel Rahim wanted to simply state that Ahmad Qureia attended the NSC meeting without giving the prime minister any specific title for this security meeting. In the end, Qureia received the credit of deputy head of NSC, but only after a heated argument.
This kind of conflict is the result of the absence of written guidelines for what happens when Arafat is absent. These issues are further exasperated by the fact that the health of the president is unknown and therefore no one is ready to challenge, vying for a leadership position, in order not to appear as taking advantage of the power vacuum.
Of course, the succession problem in Palestine, as in many Arab countries, is the result of the absence of a regular time-bound routine by which authority is rotated. In the absence of such rotation, leaders are reluctant to hand pick a deputy, let alone allow one to gain experience and competence. Elections, whether at presidential, parliamentary or municipal level, could do a lot in helping nurture and develop a new representative leadership. The absence of a democratic mechanism is even worse inside the various liberation movements. Internal elections are not happening in the Islamic and left-wing groups generally, but in the nationalist movement which Arafat heads there have not been internal elections since the late 1980s.
The Palestinians justify this situation by reminding sceptics that Palestine is still not a sovereign nation, that Palestinians are involved in an existential struggle which requires the most senior leader to have as much power as possible. They note that if a successor is known, then the other side will work at empowering the deputy when negotiations are not going well with the leader. In the case of Arafat, many say that the Israelis would have fewer qualms about taking Arafat’s life if they felt that a potential deputy would be more inclined to agree with their point of view than the historic Palestinian president.
Elections within Fatah was one of the processes that Barghouthi believed in and was trying hard to implement when the Israelis arrested him. As a street leader who himself was elected as the head of the Bir Zeit University student council, he gained legitimacy by being chosen by his peers. When the Oslo process began, he refused to accept any official position within the PNA and chose instead to remain close to the local Fatah cadres.
So far, the Palestinian leadership and institutions seem to have been able to present a unified position. Nevertheless, whatever happens to the Palestinian president, the issue of succession will certainly take a front seat now. While Qureia and Abbas who came from Tunis with the PLO dominate the headlines as possible successors, the local leaders will want to have a much bigger say in how decisions affecting the Palestinian cause are taken. It is no wonder that people like my barber were mentioning the young leaders who struggled in the first and second Intifadas in Palestine rather than some of the leaders who were connected with the original PLO struggle abroad.