Officials have gone out of their way to avoid the appearance of a coup after media reports at the height of Arafat’s illness said he had approved a triad of Abbas, Qrei’ and Fattouh to govern in his place. Arafat heard this and dispatched Azzam Al Ahmed to publicly refute the news. Until the French doctors pass their verdict, most of the top leadership is carefully maintaining the status quo. Symbolically, Arafat’s chair has remained empty at meetings.
Were Arafat to die, Palestinian law provides that the Speaker of the Legislative Council take the reigns of power for 60 days until elections can be held. The difficulty of holding elections, the relative obscurity of the current Legislative Council speaker, as well as concerns that the strained political system cannot support such an interim period have all inspired speculation that other arrangements may be initiated. Vouching for ongoing PLO prominence as the heart of Palestinian leadership, most observers believe that Abbas would eventually take the reigns.
In the event that Arafat requires extended treatment abroad, however, PLO Executive Committee member Hanna Ameera thinks an uneasy balance of power could persist for as long as a year. The problem, he says, is that this new vacuum has occurred at a time of great pressure in all of the major leadership bodies. Fateh, the president’s faction, has been clamoring to hold elections in its ranks to promote the younger leadership after more than a decade. A host of smaller Palestinian factions are demanding seats in the decision-making bodies of the PLO. Finally, the cabinet is currently discussing the Palestinian election law: when and if presidential and legislative elections will take place.