To understand what the Palestinian cause will look like without Yasser Arafat, consider the various titles that he held. Arafat was chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) Executive Committee, president of the Palestinian National Authority, commander-in-chief of the Palestinian forces, and head of the Fatah movement.
The PLO embodies Palestinian national aspirations for independence and statehood. It is the highest political body for all Palestinians, both those living in Palestine and the refugees and other Palestinians in the diaspora. Arafat's successor will need to juggle between negotiations with Israel, which will require concession on refugees' "right of return" to Palestine, and the aspirations of more than 3 million Palestinians who wish to come back to the homes from which they were expelled in the wars of 1948 and 1967.
Arafat's successor as president of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) will be bound by the Oslo Accords, which created an interim government, now headed by Prime Minister Ahmad Qurei, that is responsible for the day-to-day lives of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Palestinians will have to decide whether to make the position of PNA president a powerful one or merely symbolic, as it now is. The latter option would make Qurei an empowered prime minister, which is what many Palestinians and others want.
The position of the commander of the Palestinian forces supposedly puts the various Palestinian military, security, and intelligence units under one leader, who is expected to ensure the rule of law. But these forces are now in disarray, with most uniformed Palestinian security agencies needing to be reorganized after four years of intensive effort by Israel to crush them.
The key factor in internal security is local paramilitary units. These units, most of which are not controlled by the PNA's central leadership, are more loyal to grassroots figures than to uniformed PNA officers. Local Fatah leaders like Marwan Barghouti have tremendous power over the nationalist armed units that are loosely organized under the title of the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades.
Barghouti advocated and was trying to implement internal Fatah elections when the Israelis arrested him. As a street leader who was elected as the head of the Bir Zeit University student council, he gained legitimacy by being chosen by his peers. When the Oslo process began, he refused to accept any official position within the Palestinian Authority, choosing instead to remain close to the local Fatah cadres. Whoever fills Arafat's shoes will need to make sure that these brigades are satisfied that their status, demands, and leaders are respected.
Indeed, the power struggle that will ensue in the post-Arafat era will ultimately center on Al Fatah, the backbone of the PLO. A worldwide assembly chooses Fatah's 100-member revolutionary council, which in turn elects a 20-member central committee, where most of the power struggle will take place. Many young street leaders will insist on an emergency meeting of the revolutionary council, or even holding the sixth general assembly (which would be the first since 1988). Events in recent months show that the Al Asqa Martyrs' Brigades have forced even Arafat to take their demands into consideration.
While much of the power struggle will take place within the nationalist camp, one must not overlook the Islamist camp led by Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Although the Islamists are unlikely to interfere in the post-Arafat power struggle, they will not sit idly by if the new leadership moves in what they consider the wrong direction.