What’s gonna happen when Yasser Arafat dies?

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As of sitting down to write this, Yasser “Yes, Sir, Three Bags Full, Sir” Arafat is still alive at Percy Military Hospital near Paris. Several news accounts indicate, however, that the chairman of the Palestinian Authority is on the cusp of a medical condition that French doctors call Le Dirtnap Perpetuel. En Anglais, s’il vous plait: Yasser Arafat is about to die.

In fact, his condition is so grave that, by the time you read this, he may have already kicked the bucket. Heck, by the time you read this, I may have already kicked the bucket. I’m not terminally ill or anything, but we could all go any time. Life’s funny that way.

Other than decomposing, the first process that Arafat’s death will initiate is the one to succeed him. Arafat’s is a mighty big towel to fill. So big, in fact, that his underlings have decided to get a head start by jockeying for good positions already.

Arafat is both president of the Palestinian Authority (it governs parts of the West Bank and Gaza) and president of the Palestine Liberation Organization. The PLO is the umbrella organi-zation of Palestinian political factions. The largest such faction is called Fatah, and Arafat is also in charge of that.

If I were a betting man, which I’m not, of course, because that’d be illegal, I’d put my shekels on seeing Mahmoud Abbas end up as the next Palestinian Authority chairman. He’s the PLO’s longtime second-in-command and a co-founder of Fatah. You may remember him from his brief 2003 stint as the first-ever Palestinian prime minister. Arafat appointed him to the post under pressure from the U.S. and Israel. Both countries were sick and tired of trying to negotiate with Arafat. Abbas resigned the post after just four months, because Arafat was unwilling to give him enough power for Abbas to get anything done.

Abbas would be a relatively popular choice in the U.S. and Israel. He is an astute observer of Israeli politics and has explicitly denounced the current intifada (aka the violent uprising against the Israeli occupation going on since 2000 that has left thousands, mostly Palestinians, dead). Abbas is not much of a natural politician, however, nor does he command much of a popular base among Palestinians — a situation exacerbated by the fact that he is a relatively popular choice in the U.S. and Israel.

If I were a betting man in search of the thrill and potential payout that comes from long shots, I’d put my pesos on the current Palestinian prime minister, Ahmed Qurei. He’s another longtime Arafat-ling, but so far it looks like he’s gonna stay on as P.M.

Incidentally, the most popular Palestinian politician other than Arafat is a fellow named Marwan Barghouti. He’s in an Israeli jail, so bet accordingly.

Another distinct possibility, and a scary one, too, is that a post-Arafat power struggle will descend into civil war. The PA and PLO’s fighting strength has been severely weakened in the past few years by Israel. It’s possible that some younger Palestinian leaders with street-level support might try to grab power. An even scarier thought is that a civil war would leave fundamentalist wackos like Hamas or Islamic Jihad at the top of the political heap.

Civil war, or any outcome that leaves the Islamist nutjobs in power, would be an obstacle for post-Arafat process No. 2, the resumption of peace negotiations with Israelis. When Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon decided, with President Bush’s backing, that he no longer wanted to negotiate with Arafat, the already-slow peace process was halted. With Yasser “Obstacle to Peace” Arafat out of the way, the likelihood that Israel might resume talking peace with the Palestinians (and that President Bush would stake some political capital to encourage them) increases significantly. A fair settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute would be the single biggest step we could take toward a lasting victory in the War on TerrorTM.

All in all, Arafat’s death is something the world should look forward to. Even though we’ll all miss his Gonzo-meets-Mr. Roper mug, more people will have an opportunity to live better once he drifts off into ceaseless siesta.