Arafat would likely win vote that Bush demands
Yasser Arafat is likely to try to use a call by US President George W. Bush for new Palestinian leadership to his advantage - by quickly calling an election that analysts say he would win.
In a speech charting a course for a road map to Middle East peace on Monday, Bush told Palestinians they must elect a new leadership "not compromised by terror" to win an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
"Peace requires a new and different Palestinian leadership, so that a Palestinian state can be born."
The remarks were essentially shorthand for an end to Arafat's rule. But they suggest the irony of what could be in store when Palestinians go to the polls - the re-election of the Palestinian leader Bush has effectively written off.
"I think Arafat's next step will be to call for elections. If Mr Bush is asking for a change of leadership, then the way to do so is by a democratic way," said Palestinian political analyst Ali Jerbawi.
"When calls for changing the leadership come from the outside, they (the Palestinians) do exactly the opposite because they look like a dictate from the outside world. I think in the coming few days we will see Arafat calling for early elections."
Arafat was confident, denying that the remarks were against him. Asked for a response to Bush's call for a new leadership, he told reporters: "This is what my people will decide. They are the only ones who can determine this."
A recent poll by the Palestinian Jerusalem Media and Communications Centre said 48 per cent of the 1,179 people surveyed expected Arafat to win. Some 41 per cent gave him favourable marks while 29 per cent said he was a bad leader.
Palestinian Authority (PA) officials say only elections, and not the outside world, can dictate who leads their people.
"We already have declared elections and we trust that only an election will produce an independent government, and no government can be imposed by Mr Sharon or Mr Bush," Palestinian cabinet minister Nabil Shaath told Israeli television, referring to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
"Arafat is the choice of the Palestinian people and when he runs again next January for election that will be the time to see if the Palestinian people still give him a mandate or not."
For more than 30 years at the helm of the Palestinian cause, Arafat has made it his dream of becoming the first president of a Palestinian state and is not likely to give that up.
Palestinians officials have in the past ruled out the possibility he would step aside for a more symbolic role.
But Palestinian suicide bombings which the United States and Israel have said he has done nothing to stop, and allegations of corruption within the PA, have drawn strong pressure for reform.
Arafat removed himself as interior minister in a cabinet shuffle this month, accepted democratic reforms in principle and planned a vote by early 2003, seven years after the last one.
Bush's call came with Arafat effectively pinned down inside his compound in Ramallah by a ring of Israeli tanks as part of a widespread offensive into Palestinian-ruled West Bank areas after suicide bombings killed 26 Israelis last week.
Jerbawi said Arafat could also get what he wants by demanding that for any vote for a change in leadership to take place, Israel's army must withdraw to positions it held outside of Palestinian-ruled areas before the uprising erupted in 2000.
He could also demand international monitoring in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, a notion Israel already has rejected.
"Arafat will tell the world, if you want a change, okay, let the Israelis go back to the demarcation line of 2000 and then we will have an election," Jerbawi said. "Then he is going to win the elections and say 'This is what the Palestinians want'."
Israeli analyst Gerald Steinberg insisted Bush's speech showed Arafat is almost "out the door".
"He (Arafat) will go through the façade of elections and reforms that he has been doing. What we heard from President Bush is that that game is over," Steinberg said.
Talk of potential successors has circulated around security chief Jibril Rajoub, former security chief Mohammad Dahlan, legislature speaker Ahmed Korei, uprising leader Marwan Barghouthi and Mahmoud Abbas, an architect of peace accords.
Another Israeli analyst had doubts about successors. "Even if Arafat understands from this that he should step down...and say 'I will be a symbol and write my memoirs in Gaza'... the problem is the alternative to Arafat," said Yoni Fighel of the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism.