Unlike last week's US presidential election, there are no clearly defined candidates who will have their fates decided at the ballot box.


Indeed, it is uncertain if the Palestinians - confronted by the reality of Israeli occupation - will get to choose a new leader, or have one foisted upon them through a back-room deal.

 

Key outside power negotiators, such as Israel and the US, will also try to influence Arafat's succession.


According to London-based Palestinian analyst and al-Quds al-Arabi editor, Abd al-Bari Atwan, it is imperative that the Palestinians hold elections to choose a leader and break the Arafat-led Fatah movement's stranglehold on power.

 

"Arafat is by far the most popular figure in Palestine," he told Aljazeera.net. "But no other figure in his Fatah movement commands much support among Palestinians. So why should they be allowed to maintain power?"

 

But some analysts say it is far from certain that credible elections can be held within the West Bank and Gaza under a state of occupation.


Collective leadership?

 

Khalid Amayreh, Aljazeera.net's correspondent in the West Bank, says the situation is further complicated by Arafat's elimination of any potential rivals.


He said it would also be impossible for one figure to unite the Palestinians in the same way as Arafat had done.


"It is highly possible that there will not be one leader," he told Aljazeera.net.

 

No other figure in Palestine
commands Arafat's popularity 

"The safest option would be for some sort of collective leadership. But the problem is that Fatah will not tolerate power sharing."

 

Amayreh added that Arafat's death would be bad news for the Israelis as he was the only man who could have made as many concessions as he did and still survive politically.

 

Amayreh said: "The Palestinian leadership will inevitably have to get more hardline to enjoy a measure of popularity among the Palestinian people. They will not accept someone who is in the pocket of the Americans and the Israelis.

"Popular resistance movements like Hamas will not seek power themselves but without Arafat they will inevitably gain more influence."

 

THE CONTENDERS

 

Mahmud Abbas


Also known as Abu Mazin, Abbas, 69, is the most senior Palestinian leader after Arafat and one of the few surviving founder members of Fatah - the main political group in the PLO.


Abbas built his reputation as one of the architects of the peace process with Israel during the 1990s.

 

Mahmud Abbas is the most senior
PLO leader after Arafat

In 2003 he was appointed Palestinian prime minister with the remit of implementing a peace plan with the Israelis known as the road map.

 

However, Abbas resigned four months later in the face of repeated Israeli invasions of Palestinian territory and an internal struggle with Arafat.


Touted by politicians in Washington and London as the Palestinian moderate who would deliver peace, Abbas was branded at home as an Israeli appeaser.


Although his position within Fatah makes him a strong contender to take over from Arafat, he has little grassroots support among ordinary Palestinians.


Ahmad Quraya


Quraya, or Abu Ala, is another of the chief architects of the peace process with Israel during the 1990s.


Quraya's credentials rest on his
past role as a peace negotiator

After Abbas's departure as prime minister in 2003, he was charged with reviving the American-backed road map to peace as PM. This he has so far failed to do.

 

Nevertheless, as one of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation's most senior leaders, the 67-year-old's supporters say he has the trust and respect of all sides in the conflict.

 

On the other hand, his detractors say he is too close to the Israelis and, like Abbas, has little grassroots support.

Marwan al-Barghuthi


The highly popular Marwan al-Barghuthi is currently languishing in an Israeli jail, accused of being behind a spate of bomb attacks.


Born in Ram Allah in 1958, al-Barghuthi was the liaison officer for the Palestinian Liberation Organisation in Amman and Tunis.


Imprisoned for six years for his role in the first intifada (1987-1992), al-Barghuthi was deported to Jordan in 1987.


Al-Barghuthi (R), currently in
an Israeli jail, is a popular figure

After the 1993 Oslo accords, he returned to the West Bank in April 1994 and took over as secretary-general of Fatah in the West Bank.


He considers any Palestinian who bargains over the 1967 borders a traitor.

Aside from enjoying good relations with Islamist groups, al-Barghuthi is also critical of the centralisation of power under Arafat and accuses his officials of financial corruption.


A pragmatist, he believes that a permanent solution to the Middle East conflict can be found only if the mediator is changed. According to him, the US is too close to Israel to be an honest negotiator.


Muhammad Dahlan

Muhammad Dahlan, 43, is the man that many believe the Israelis and the Americans would like to see as Palestinian leader.

 

After a bust-up with Arafat earlier this year, Gaza's former security chief is now without an official post, but retains influence and a militia in the area.

 

Dahlan is a former Gaza security
chief who has his own militia

Dahlan, who was one of the youngest leaders of the first Palestinian intifada in 1987, says he was jailed 10 times by the Israelis between 1981 and 1986

 

As part of the Palestinian delegation at the Camp David peace talks in 2000, he says he is one of those who fought the hardest to reach a settlement with the Israelis.

 

But with the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000 and his subsequent crackdown on Islamist activists, Dahlan's credibility in the eyes of the Palestinian street eroded.

 

And his good relations with Israel and the US have led to accusations that he is colluding with the enemy.

 

Jibril al-Rajub

 

Jibril al-Rajub, 51, is the former security chief in the West Bank, where he still has considerable influence and a militia.

 

Al-Rajub has been criticised for
cracking down on Islamist groups

A long-term member of Fatah, he was sentenced to life in prison by the Israelis in 1970 for throwing a grenade at a convoy of Israeli soldiers.

 

Viewed as a pragmatist, he has ordered his forces to clamp down on resistance groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad to stop them from attacking Israel.

 

He argues for the continuation of the Palestinian Authority as the best organisation to represent Palestinian interests.

 

Al-Rajub is also said to be regarded favourably by Israel and the US.