JERUSALEM – For four decades, Yasser Arafat jealously guarded his power, blocking many potential challengers from rising into prominence while others died in combat or were thrown into Israeli prisons. Arafat's refusal to groom a successor could now haunt his people.
As long as he was alive, Palestinians refused to openly discuss Arafat's succession, concerned about being disrespectful to the man who put their plight on the world agenda. Even after he fell gravely ill, Palestinians refused to speculate on who would be their next leader.
The result is that no Palestinian in public life has the stature or the power base to wield authority as Arafat did, much less the strength to unify competing political factions and the fractious array of security forces Arafat set up.
For the next two months, parliament speaker Raouhi Fattouh will become acting president of the Palestinian Authority, in accordance with Palestinian basic law. A Palestinian official said after Arafat's death Thursday that he would be sworn in shortly. But Fattouh is a bland politician and is likely to quickly fade from public view.
The list of weaker politicians who could permanently follow Arafat includes former Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, current Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia and two Palestinian security chiefs, Mohammed Dahlan and Jibril Rajoub.
The most popular leader, and the one who would have the best chance of consolidating power, is Marwan Barghouti, but he is serving a life sentence in an Israeli prison.
Rather than a single person, a collective leadership could coalesce to govern for the near term, along the lines Arafat dictated before leaving for treatment in Paris.
Under that arrangement, Abbas and Qureia have a carefully balanced division of authority. Abbas, widely known as Abu Mazen, is chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization's executive committee, the paramount political body. Qureia, known as Abu Ala, took charge of the security forces.
Some analysts think a smooth transition to elections, shepherded by a caretaker government under Abbas and Qureia, could open new prospects for peace after four years of the second "intefadeh," the violent uprising against Israeli rule.
"It could be one of the most hopeful signs of the last four years, because these Palestinians, at different stages, have been critics of the militarization of the intefadeh," said David Makovsky at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
But hard-line militant groups opposed to Israel's existence will likely seek to exert greater influence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Hamas and Islamic Jihad also could launch a new wave of suicide bombings to provoke a fierce Israeli response, making it difficult for the new leadership to initiate serious peace talks with Israel.
Israel's own response to Arafat's successors will be crucial to their ability to establish credibility in the Palestinian street. It's likely to be a tightrope act for Israel: not appearing to be too close to the new leaders while enabling them to show progress on the issues of peace and prosperity.
The leadership change could bring greater accountability to the Palestinian government, since no one was in a position to question Arafat's loosely controlled disbursement of funds. Street protests over corruption and inefficient government rattled Arafat's regime over the summer.
Power-sharing is unlikely to last for long, however, with jousting sure to break out in the ranks of Arafat's Fatah political movement.
"There will be a strong competition over power, but not fighting," said Ghassan Khatib, the Palestinian labor minister. "We would see strong competition between individuals and streams within Fatah over power, but they will not use weapons against each other, because both parties would lose in that case."
Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. Mideast negotiator, also expects a bitter contest following a transition period.
"The real struggle will come behind the scenes," he said, involving the old guard of Palestinian leaders who spent most of their careers with Arafat in exile — Abbas and Qureia — against the younger generation who grew up under Israel's rule.
But younger leaders like Dahlan and Rajoub have no national following among Palestinians. Dahlan built his power base in Gaza and Rajoub in the West Bank, and both may welcome an uncontentious transition to try to solidify their own positions.
Lacking strong democratic traditions, the Palestinians have only untried mechanisms for choosing a new leadership.
The last general election was in January 1996. Arafat blocked further elections, saying a fair vote was impossible amid Israel's crackdown in the Palestinian territories. Critics said he avoided elections because of growing disaffection with his rule.