Arafat Is Still in the Picture

"The Palestinian leadership can now hold its meetings in Paris," someone joked over the weekend at a meeting of the left-wing Palestinian organizations. He was referring to the reinclusion of Farouk Kaddoumi, No. 2 in the Palestine Liberation Organization, in the Executive Committee's discussions.

Because of opposition to Oslo, Kadoumi did not return to the territories with his colleagues. Now he can hop over from Tunis.

The joke reflects the rapid adjustment to alternative scenarios: Arafat was nearly buried on Wednesday, was reported dying on Thursday, and now there is talk of treatment and a recovery period. The doctors say a blood disease could be manageable, if this is, indeed, Arafat's problem. In this event, there is doubt whether he will agree to delegate his powers formally, let alone relinquish them.

"God willing, he will get well and return," said a grocer in Ramallah, watching the small television in his shop. But the wish was seconded by a rhetorical question: "What kind of leader refuses to delegate powers in this condition?"

The chief Palestinian organizations outside Fatah continue to call for the formation of a temporary unity or emergency government, a call sounded since the beginning of the intifada.

Two bodies could discuss this motion: the PLO's Executive Committee, and the National Islamic Forces, a body created to direct the intifada, which quickly reverted to playing merely a declarative role. Hamas has no representation in the Executive Committee. The Democratic Front, an oppositional force with political resonance, despite its small size, boycotts the Executive Committee's meetings because it opposes Oslo. Arafat used to include representatives of other ephemeral political bodies at meetings, but because of their size, no real discussion could take place. Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) discontinued this practice, asking only committee members to attend meetings he runs.

But it is unlikely that the call for a unity government will be discussed while Arafat's condition remains unclear. The forum of the National Islamic Forces, which includes groups that are not part of the PLO, i.e., Hamas and Islamic Jihad, is being convened by a Fatah representative, Sahar Habash. During the past few days, his cellular phone was said to be turned off. This forum is therefore unavailable for discussing emergency measures.

The second demand of the organizations is to prepare for a general election. Seventy-six percent of eligible voters have registered, meaning that a large majority of the Palestinian public supports elections. As long as Arafat is alive, there will be no presidential elections. The only way out, says a senior activist on the left, is to hold elections for the legislative council only. This will not be perceived as a move to undermine Arafat's authority. The man, who expressed his hope for the chairman's recovery, believes only Arafat is capable of reaching an agreement with Israel, with the backing of a majority of Palestinians. Elections for the legislative council will clarify the real political power balance, because the Islamic groups are likely to participate this time. It is not clear that Fatah will support elections, because this will mean facing up to their true dimensions.

Arafat's recovery will guarantee that no serious conflict develops between the security organizations under Fatah's control, or the different factions in Fatah, says the senior left-wing activist. "Arafat is used to leading Fatah from afar," he said. But even without his direction, "Fatah members are finding that their sense of responsibility is getting the better of their competitive drives, and this will ensure reasonable political and administrative conduct."

Outside political circles, many are worried about their personal safety because of Fatah's reputation for spawning countless armed gangs, warring with one another with anonymous approval and funding from above. A resident of the Jenin area said people were thinking of arming themselves for self-defense. "People have a right to worry," said a senior Palestinian security officer, "but they should know everything is being done to prevent a worst-case scenario. Abu Mazen and Abu Ala (Ahmed Qureia) are meeting with security officials to draw red lines. In his absence, it will be easier to act against anyone who crosses them. He is still in the picture and we will continue to hear in the coming days he is the only leader, but in two weeks that tune will die down. As long as Arafat is there, and God willing he will stay there, the situation will improve."