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Although Yasser Arafat had been ill for more than a week, and people have spoken for years of the day after his demise, the sudden turn for the worse in his condition took his movement by surprise.

In the words of one of its members, Fatah people hesitate to speak of an heir, even when it appears that Arafat is dying.

Until Thursday, no formal meetings were held by the cabinet or any Palestine Liberation Organization or Fatah institution. But even before it was decided to send him to Paris, there were spontaneous consultations about the next steps and how to fill the leadership vacuum, temporarily.

Contrary to Israeli expectations and predictions of an inheritance war that might escalate into a bloody battle, senior Fatah and Palestinian Authority officials said Thursday that this would not happen.

No inheritance war is expected, said a senior Fatah member, because the inheritance is not that attractive. "What does this inheritance offer, after all? Ruling a frustrated, impoverished, hopeless nation that suffers daily military attacks?" he asked.

In addition, no one in the Palestinian political system has enough power to declare himself a leader, he added. "Nobody has such high personal ambitions that would drive him to take power against the others' wishes," he said.

The name of Abu Mazen (former prime minister Mahmoud Abbas) was brought up in every consultation, as the man who could fill the vacuum. His official role definition will be decided according to one of the following three scenarios - Arafat recovers, Arafat remains ill indefinitely but officially retains his powers or Arafat dies.

Three inheritances are at stake - the PLO leadership, the PA leadership and the Fatah leadership. "It's really one football team. Some may be playing and others sitting on the bench, but basically it's all the same people," said the senior Fatah man. Their sense of responsibility has prompted them, he said, to seek out the man who will be accepted by several rival groups in the Fatah and could act in a collective framework.

Abu Mazen is first in the hierarchy, according to the regulations of the PA and the PLO. The PLO delegates authority to the PA, and is therefore above it. Abu Mazen is the secretary of the PLO's executive committee, and so has more authority than Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia (Abu Ala). Thus, fixing Abu Mazen's place at the top of the PLO hierarchy is an almost automatic move. His natural tendency to act in a collective body neutralizes the possibility of competition with Abu Ala, and paves the way to forming a collective leadership.

In the Fatah things are different: Abu Mazen resigned from his duties in Fatah institutions after its central committee turned its back on him as prime minister. Officially, the central committee can convene and elect an interim head. However, the Fatah's grass-roots activists made it clear in unofficial consultations Thursday that they want to see Abu Mazen return and assume authority as head of the movement. Until Arafat's condition is cleared up and/or elections are held, Abu Mazen will assume all Arafat's duties, they said, except for what they called the negative aspects. "It's hard for us to see Abu Mazen sign checks for medical treatments for this person or another, or for studies overseas for some senior official's daughter," one said.

The PA's institutions and ministries will continue to function and function even better, one official said. Arafat hardly interfered in their activity "but when he did, it had a negative effect because he tried to restrict people or promote others for irrelevant reasons."

The vacuum is felt more at the political decision-making level, rather than the administrative one. After years in which Arafat's political decision was not to decide, the solution will probably be forming a leadership that would act until the elections "collegially and consensually as a group."

"If there is fear of bloodshed, it is from clashes between militant groups," a Ramallah official said. "A collective leadership would take that into consideration," he said. He expressed the hope that "Israel does not try to interfere and disrupt things, and fulfill its prediction of a bloody struggle."