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Arafat Would Probably Win Reelection


JERUSALEM — If the Palestinians held elections today, it is unlikely that they would kick out their current leadership, as President Bush envisioned in a speech Monday.

Instead, polls suggest that Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat would win reelection with an overwhelming mandate, extending his more than 30-year leadership of the Palestinian cause.

And if Arafat were somehow removed from the political arena--if he died, voluntarily stepped aside or was expelled by the Israelis--free elections could produce a more radical Palestinian leadership even less accommodating to Israel's wish.

Bush's prescription for peace in the Middle East as outlined in the speech calls for the Palestinian people to "elect new leaders, leaders not compromised by terror," in order to make peace with Israel. The approach, with its boundless faith in the democratic process, is classically American, not unlike peace plans championed by the U.S. in other trouble spots, such as Bosnia-Herzegovina and Afghanistan.

But political pundits here, both Palestinian and Israeli, maintained Tuesday that Bush's scenario has little chance of ending the 21-month wave of violence that has claimed about 2,000 lives.

"Arafat will be reelected, no doubt about it. That is the reality that we have to deal with," said Israeli political columnist Danny Rubinstein.

Even before Bush's speech, Arafat promised that elections would be held no later than early 2003. During a meeting Tuesday with French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Arafat confirmed that plans were being drawn up for presidential and legislative elections in January and municipal elections in March.

Earlier in the day, Arafat aide Saeb Erekat said that elections would be held those months, but that the dates had not been finalized because of the inability of the Palestinian leadership to meet due to curfews imposed by the Israeli military in the West Bank.

'Democratic' Elections

These elections will be "democratic, democratic, democratic," Arafat said, speaking with reporters after the meeting with the French foreign minister. He rejected the suggestion that Bush's call for new leadership was a personal attack on him--Bush did not mention Arafat by name in the speech--but stressed that the Palestinian people alone would pick their leadership.

"It will be decided by my people and no one else," Arafat declared.

The 72-year-old Arafat has good reason to be cocky about the prospect of elections. Despite continued grumbling by Palestinians about their leadership, Arafat has survived nearly four decades as a guerrilla chief and then an elected Palestinian leader in part by keeping his potential rivals and successors weak and divided.

The widespread complaints about corruption and mismanagement in the Palestinian Authority revolve around his aides more than Arafat himself.

In a poll released this month by the Jerusalem Media & Communications Center, Palestinian respondents named Arafat as the most trustworthy Palestinian figure. Asked to name the person they "trust the most," more than 25% picked Arafat.

His closest rival in the poll, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, spiritual leader of the Islamic movement Hamas, was picked by fewer than 9%.

Polls also raise doubts about the suggestion by Bush that a silent majority of Palestinians, if given the chance to express itself honestly in free elections, would reject violence against Israeli targets.

A survey published Sunday in the Palestinian newspaper Al Hayat al Jadida found that 60% of respondents supported suicide bombings within Israel and a stunning 86% supported attacks against Israeli troops and settlers within the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

And the respected Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research suggested that Arafat's Fatah political faction has bolstered its popularity because of suicide bombings and other attacks carried out since December by the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, an armed wing of the movement.

If Bush sees Arafat as tainted by terrorism, many Palestinians complain that their leader is too accommodating toward Israel.

"They will never find somebody to give the concessions to Israel already given by Arafat," Khadar Muzini, 25, a fabric salesman in Gaza, said Tuesday in response to Bush's speech.

"The maximum was already given by Arafat."

Among potential successors to Arafat, longtime deputies such as Ahmed Korei, better known as Abu Alaa, and Mahmoud Abbas, or Abu Maazen, are seen as tainted by their deep involvement in the peace negotiations with Israel that followed the 1993 Oslo accords.

Others--such as Jibril Rajoub, the top Palestinian security official in the West Bank, and Mohammed Dahlan, his onetime counterpart in Gaza--have lost ground because of their periodic efforts to arrest Islamic militants at Arafat's behest.

"If they get rid of Arafat, there will be a more radical leadership," predicted Isla Jad, an academic in Ramallah.

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