RAMALLAH, West Bank – Mahmoud Abbas (search), a former prime minister and a veteran peace negotiator, was elected chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (search) on Thursday within hours of Yasser Arafat's death (search), putting him on a track to become the next overall leader of the Palestinians.
The 69-year-old Abbas, better known as Abu Mazen and who long worked in Arafat's shadow as the PLO's No. 2 official, takes the most powerful of the three titles Arafat held — president of the Palestinian Authority, leader of the Fatah movement and head of the PLO.
The PLO executive committee vote was unanimous, said Palestinian Cabinet minister Ibrahim Abu Najah. "That means no one will compete with him in the election for president."
Palestinian officials moved quickly Thursday to fill the leadership gap left by the death of Arafat, who held the unruly Palestinian political factions together during the four decades of his rule.
Rauhi Fattouh, a virtual unknown, was to be sworn in Thursday as temporary president of the Palestinian Authority, inheriting the title but not the power held by Arafat.
Under law, Fattouh will serve as caretaker president until elections are held within 60 days.
Ahmed Qureia, the Palestinian prime minister, heads day-to-day government in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. He is a key figure in what some Palestinians said would be a collective leadership.
Marwan Barghouti, a powerful figure in Fatah who has the popularity to inherit Arafat's mantle, is in an Israeli jail, sentenced to multiple life terms after being convicted of sponsoring terrorism.
In moving within hours of Arafat's death to fill the void, Palestinian leaders signaled their determination to ensure a smooth transition and allay concerns that the lack of a single strong leader could touch off factional fighting.
"We can be certain transition will be smooth, and the Palestinian people deserve to have free and fair elections," Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat told The Associated Press.
Abbas was one of the first top PLO officials to recognize Israel and distanced himself from terror activities. He led Palestinian negotiators in peace talks in the 1990s and has met with Ariel Sharon, Israel's prime minister.
Abbas has also been a critic of the armed conflict that emerged from the Palestinian uprising that began in September 2000. He said what happened "is a complete destruction of everything we built."
Abbas was born in 1935 in the hilltop town of Safed, now in northern Israel. He is married and has two sons, both businessmen. Abbas and his family fled to Syria during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war that led to Israel's creation.
After helping found Arafat's Fatah party in 1965, Abbas managed finances for the movement and distanced himself from terror activities.
In a meeting with Fatah officials last year, Abbas said the outbreak of the uprising in September 2000 was understandable but should not have been allowed to deteriorate into an armed conflict.
Fattouh, 55, grew up in the Rafah refugee camp in Gaza. He left Gaza for studies abroad in the 1960s, joined Fatah in 1968 and returned from exile in 1994, along with Arafat and other Palestinian officials.
In the first Palestinian general elections in 1996, he was elected to the parliament on a Fatah slate. In 2003, he was appointed agriculture minister, and a year later was chosen speaker, replacing Qureia who became prime minister.
Fattouh is a mid-level Fatah activist, and was chosen as speaker after being offered as a compromise candidate during a power struggle between Arafat and his parliament.
Arafat managed to depose the previous speaker, Rafik Natche, who wanted to investigate corruption allegations in the Palestinian leadership, and hand-picked the loyalist Fattouh.