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French Version

Our Say...: Arafat in his winter - By The Star (Amman)

The sudden illness of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and his flight to Paris for medical treatment this week has catapulted, to the forefront, the issue of the historic leaderís succession. While initial worries-that Arafat may have a form of terminal blood disease-seem to have dissipated, the issue of the aging leaderís disappearance from the political scene remains pressing.

For decades Arafat has been the only symbol of Palestinian struggle for freedom from Israeli occupation. The international furor over his fate in the past few days is a stark reminder that when it comes to the Palestinian cause there remains only one figure that enjoys recognition and legitimacy. Arafat has been a prisoner in his own Ramallah compound for more than three years, during which he saw much of his Palestinian National Authority (PNA) destroyed by Israeli tanks.

Much of the Oslo and Washington historic agreements between the Palestinians and Israel have been left in ruins as well. America under President George W. Bush has been determined to side-step Arafat and make him irrelevant. Israel under Ariel Sharon has threatened to liquidate him. But the 74-year-old Palestinian patriarch has resisted and persevered, but at a terrible cost.

On the one hand Arafat continues to receive the backing and recognition of most of the world as the elected leader of his people, but on the other he has failed to rid himself of accusations of authoritarianism, cronyism and corruption, which unfortunately eroded the PNAís credibility and respect even among the Palestinians. If Arafat recovers and decides to return to his ruined headquarters in Ramallah, assuming that Israel will honor its word to allow him to do that, then the Palestinian leader will have to make fundamental changes to his style of leadership. The Palestinian cause, currently not at its best hour, should not suffer further mishaps as a result of Arafatís uncompromising clinch to power.

His illness and the concern for his health cannot be separated from a genuine anxiety over the future of Palestinian unity in the event of his death. Arafat has contributed like no other to the just cause of the Palestinians. He has fought when fighting was needed and stretched his arm in peace when times and circumstances necessitated it. But now the leader in the winter of his life must look to the future of his people, not his own. He can safeguard the unity of his people by initiating a process of succession that best serves the interests of Palestinians everywhere. The issue of succession comes at a time when the Palestinians are subjected to the worst aggression in recent history by Israel.

Sharon is bent on destroying the last feeble hope for peace and has already pushed back the peace process to a dangerous precipice. Arafatís struggle and resolve have inspired Palestinians everywhere, but during the years of the Intifada the Palestinians have also lost much of the gains they had realized in the 1990s. This is a milestone in the Palestinian march towards their freedom and statehood. Arafatís legacy will be remembered for his decisions and actions in the coming few weeks.

The Star

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