JERUSALEM – Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, while reviled by Israelis and the Bush administration, has been a unifying symbol to his people, and his death or disability likely will usher in prolonged instability and possibly internecine bloodshed in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, government officials and analysts said Thursday.

Arafat, 75 and ailing, was to be flown to Paris on Friday for emergency medical treatment. He leaves behind a political vacuum that he created over four decades by jealously guarding political power and ruthlessly undercutting political rivals.

“All the Palestinian people know Chairman Arafat will die. … This is the law of life and law of nature,” said Abu Ali Shaheen, a member of Arafat’s Fatah party and former Cabinet official. “Now the question is who is next. … It is a vacuum. All of us, we recognized he’s the first. But no one dared to be second.”

U.S. and Israeli officials, who cut off talks with Arafat more than two years ago over his ties to terrorism, said they hoped his departure from the political scene will allow new leaders who are willing to compromise with Israel to step forward.

“I believe that this will make it possible for a different Palestinian leadership to grow up free from the dark shadow of Yasser Arafat, who prevented any possibility of dialogue,” Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom told state-run Israel Radio. “He was never prepared to compromise.”

But other officials and analysts said that no single Palestinian leader is likely to emerge soon, and if one does, he’ll need to show toughness toward Israel to prove his credentials.

“If you’re Arafat’s successor … the first thing is, you have to prove your nationalist bona fides,” said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“I don’t think we’re on the verge of a breakthrough. If anything, we’re on the verge of a step backward, before we can take a step forward.”

Experts predict a lengthy period of flux in the already unstable Middle East. In the meantime, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is likely to move ahead with unilateral plans to disengage from the Gaza Strip and set the borders of a future Palestinian state, they said.

Arafat’s death is certain to touch off a mass outpouring of emotion among Palestinians “unlike anything we’ve seen since (Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel-) Nasser died in 1970,” said Dennis Ross, Middle East envoy for Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

“There will be incredible insecurity. And the insecurity will produce fear,” Ross said Thursday at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

In the short term, Arafat is likely to be succeeded by a triumvirate of leaders from his generation in the Palestine Liberation Organization, Palestinian and other sources said. The most frequently mentioned name is former Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen.

But this old guard is likely to face stiff challenges from a younger generation of Fatah leaders who have bristled under Arafat’s iron rule and from Islamist groups such as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which favor armed confrontation with Israel and have increased their support among Palestinians.

The struggle for power could turn violent.

Arafat “will depart, leaving behind scorched earth and a shattered chair, around which wars and violent battles could rage,” Roni Shaked, a former senior Israeli security official, wrote in Israel’s largest daily newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth.

Palestinian officials played down the possibility of large-scale violence or civil war, saying they’ve laid plans for transitional rule by the PLO veterans who returned with Arafat from exile in Tunisia in 1994.

But Arafat’s death will signal the twilight of that cadre of Palestinian leaders, Alterman said.

“The deep, deep reality is that this is a generation of Palestinian leadership that is coming to an end,” he said.

And, he said, “the young guys have been champing at the bit for an awfully long time.”

Among the younger guard, many of whom have spent time in Israeli jails, are Gaza security chief Mohammed Dahlan, 43, and populist militant Marwan Barghouti, 47, who’s now in an Israeli prison, convicted on terrorism charges.

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Arafat’s illness comes at a delicate time for Israel and the United States.

Sharon this week won a contentious vote in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, on his plan to withdraw Israeli troops and settlements from Gaza.

The United States is days away from presidential elections. The White House’s top Middle East expert, Elliott Abrams, has put out the word that President Bush would be more involved in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute if he’s re-elected, according to one current and one former U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The Bush administration, following Sharon’s lead, ended dealings with Arafat in 2002 and called on Palestinians to come up with new leaders who would control multiple Palestinian security services and end attacks on Israel.

If Arafat dies, “it doesn’t change a lot for us,” said a State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We wrote him off June 24, 2002,” he said, referring to the date of Bush’s speech announcing the new U.S. policy.

Brig. Gen. Michael Herzog of the Israeli Defense Forces said that opponents of Sharon’s unilateral Gaza withdrawal plan could seize on Arafat’s death to call for a delay. The plan is premised on the presumption that Israel can’t find a legitimate Palestinian negotiating partner, which Arafat’s passing might call into question.

But Herzog, a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute, said the best way to embolden moderate Palestinian leaders is to move forward with the withdrawal, because it would show the Palestinians the benefits of cooperation.

Observers said Sharon is determined to do that, regardless.



(Nelson reported from Jerusalem, Strobel from Washington. Cliff Churgin in Jerusalem contributed to this report.)



(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): ARAFAT

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Arafat

GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20041028 Arafat exile, 20041028 Arafat compound, 20041027 ARAFAT

AP-NY-10-28-04 1911EDT



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