WASHINGTON -- The latest Mideast violence threatens anew Yasser Arafat's position as Palestinian leader, raising the question of who would be next. The answer is complicated by the fact that his likeliest successors are lying low.
Two Palestinian security chiefs, an architect of the now-unraveled Oslo peace plan, a Palestinian legislator and a populist uprising leader are among those who could replace Arafat.
They are staying out of the public eye partly on Arafat's orders -- and partly because the unprecedented intensity of Israel's anti-terror offensive this week makes risky even the most innocent of outings.
The offensive has Arafat under siege, and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has made no secret of his desire to expel Arafat.
The Palestinian leadership believes Sharon's real goal is to destroy the Palestinian Authority, including Arafat's successors, said Ed Abington, the Palestinians' top lobbyist in Washington.
''Arafat has about 100 bodyguards in his office, and they all expect to die,'' said Abington, a former U.S. ambassador who served in the region.
Despite Israeli reassurances that most of the likely successors are not targeted, they are staying at home or otherwise out of sight.
Among them is Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, one of the original negotiators of the breakthrough 1993 Oslo accords. Oslo led to seven years of negotiations before the uprising erupted in September 2000.
He broke new ground in the mid 1990s when he became the first leading Palestinian to accept Israeli claims to parts of Jerusalem that had been captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war -- a position Arafat tentatively endorsed by the time of the Camp David talks in the summer of 2000.
Such trendsetting made Abbas an early leadership contender, but a reputation for being too conciliatory to Israel -- stoked partly by Arafat to deflect criticism for his own concessions -- now stalks him. Still, Arafat recently named Abbas as one of two leaders of an interim government should he step down.
The other interim co-leader is Ahmed Qureia, the speaker of the Palestinian Parliament, also an Oslo veteran. Qureia, also known as Abu Ala, has an easygoing style that has won him friendships over the years with his Israeli counterparts.
He is persistent about getting back to the negotiating table, and recently met with Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres to explore ways out of the impasse. The two Palestinian security chiefs, Mohammed Dahlan in Gaza and Jibril Rajoub in the West Bank, are also frequently named as likely leaders.
Their principal advantage over Qureia and Abbas is that they are younger and ''locals'' -- many Palestinians resent the elites who assumed control after returning from exile in 1994. Both men helped lead the 1987-93 uprising, and served in Israeli prisons, where they learned to speak Hebrew.
Both are moderates, but now that they are directing resistance to the offensive, they are making themselves scarce. Israeli forces leveled Rajoub's headquarters in Ramallah on Tuesday.
Israeli media reports suggested that the target of that operation was not Rajoub, but Marwan Barghouti, a leader of the current uprising who is also sometimes mentioned as a possible Arafat successor.
Barghouti was known as a moderate before, and still avoids some of the radical anti-Israel rhetoric that has flourished recently. He has earned points for leading some of the demonstrations at roadblocks, and is on Israel's wanted list for allegedly masterminding attacks.
U.S. officials refuse to speculate about successors.
''Chairman Arafat is the head of the Palestinian Authority, an organization that we helped create,'' Secretary of State Colin Powell said this week. ''We still believe there is more he can do and we are asking him to do more.''
Abington worries that it may be too late for Arafat or any of the successors.
''Palestinians are radicalized, the Israeli action has destroyed the moderates' credibility,'' he said.
Israeli officials ridicule the notion that they want to eliminate the leaders of the next generation.
''Israel understands that once the infrastructure of terror is dismantled, it will return to political negotiations,'' said Dore Gold, an adviser to Sharon.
Most of the probable successors are in no danger, Gold said.
Yair Hirschfeld, one of the lead Israeli negotiators of the original 1993 Oslo accords, says Sharon's offensive is crippling any successor's ability to take effective control because vital Palestinian installations, including its West Bank security headquarters, have been destroyed.
Hirschfeld, who has returned to academic life and remains friends with some of the next generation of leaders, said the likely successors must overcome petty squabbling among themselves, of the sort that hindered an accord at Camp David.
A lack of Palestinian unity there was a factor in Arafat's refusal to consider then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak's unprecedented offer of more than 90 percent of the West Bank and part of Jerusalem.
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