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Tuesday, 7 May, 2002, 16:43 GMT 17:43 UK
Analysis: If not Arafat, then who?
Yasser Arafat
The US has criticised Yasser Arafat's leadership
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By Paul Reynolds
BBC Middle East Analyst
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The Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has called him "irrelevant" and is trying to get the Americans to agree.

President Bush has said that he is disappointed in him and wants him to show "leadership".

Mr Bush doubts his commitment to a peace with Israel.

But "he" - Yasser Arafat - is still there and still has to be dealt with.

Even the head of Israeli military intelligence said the other day that Mr Arafat was the only "Palestinian address". And after all, he was elected by the Palestinian people.

Any discussion of alternatives to him must reckon with his amazing staying power.

But if alternatives are sought, they could come from one of three groups.

Key lieutenants

There are first, his own lieutenants. They might include the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, Abu Ala; or Abu Mazen, a close associate who has had past contacts with Mr Sharon himself.

There is the head of security on the West Bank, Jibril Rajoub.

But these people are hardly likely to mount a challenge to their own leader.

The Israelis might prefer to deal with them, but they might not want to deal with the Israelis without the authority of Mr Arafat himself.

Abu Ala
Future leader? Arafat lieutenant Abu Ala
A second group might emerge in time. This could evolve from a group of intellectuals and others, among them Dr Mustapha Bargouti, who made a statement last December.

They called for greater Palestinian democracy but no compromise on a full Israeli withdrawal.

By criticising Mr Arafat's style, they distanced themselves from him. By insisting on no compromise, they hoped to appeal to the mass of Palestinian people.

They perhaps represent a "third way". But they are a voice in the wilderness as yet.

Islamic extremists

The third group is none other than the Islamic extremist elements, Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

If they took control of the Palestinian people, a doomsday scenario might be upon the region, for they oppose not just an Israeli occupation but an Israeli existence.

So even a quick look at the alternative personalities throws up huge problems.

The people around Mr Arafat are unlikely to turn on him. Independent figures in the Palestinian communities have no real power. Israel and the Islamic parties have nothing to discuss.

Sticking with Arafat

So another way might be for the international community to go on dealing with Mr Arafat but to insist that he improve the manner in which he rules his territories.

There would have to be better rule of law, independent judges, an accountability of public funds and offices and new parliamentary elections.

This other way forward might have its attractions for the United States. It avoids the problem of trying to bypass Mr Arafat, which has been tried so often by the Israelis.

And it does address some of the real concerns of the Palestinians themselves, who have to cope not just with the Israeli presence but with the uncertainties of their own rulers.

Washington's distrust

Washington seems uncertain how to proceed.

On the one hand, it distrusts Mr Arafat. The seizure of the boatload of weapons from Iran had a profound impact on the Bush team. It cast doubt on Mr Arafat's claims to oppose terrorism.

On the other, it has to accept the reality that Mr Arafat has not gone away.

That doesn't mean that, even if it goes on talking to Mr Arafat, the United States expects a settlement.

Expectations are currently so low that the best that can be hoped for is crisis management.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
Condoleeza Rice, US National Security Adviser
"The Palestinian leadership that is there now is not the kind of leadership that can lead to a state we need"
Ariel Sharon's senior advisor, Zalman Shoval
"The pre-condition for everything is that there must be an absolute stop to terror"
See also:

04 May 02 | Middle East
Arafat faces calls for reform
03 May 02 | Middle East
Q&A: Middle East peace conference
02 May 02 | Middle East
Arafat: The great survivor
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