Even as Americans vote in one of the most heated U.S. elections this century, Israel is having its own serious leadership struggles. With Yasser Arafat's health and future leadership in serious question and with the Knesset debating the details of Sharon's proposed Gaza withdrawal, the future of Israel is being shaped right now in critical ways.
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat collapsed and lost consciousness last Wednesday in the West Bank. Blood tests showed his blood platelet count to be quite low, but no certain diagnosis of his illness is yet available. He arrived at a French military hospital on Friday and was given blood transfusions, which have improved his condition. Speculators have suggested that Arafat might have a severe viral infection, any of a number of possible blood disorders, some form of cancer like leukemia, or even food poisoning. An Arafat aide said that leukemia was ruled out for now, however, French doctors are not commenting on the PA leader's health and will not give an official diagnosis until the results of several tests come back.
In the meanwhile, few are expecting Arafat to return to leadership, even if he recovers, since his health and mental capacity have severely deteriorated. Since Arafat has not appointed a successor, the great void he leaves in the Palestinian leadership will likely be filled through a power struggle that could turn violent. Already, however, the current prime minister Abu Ala is taking over security of the PA and Abu Mazen has already started assuming control over the PLO and Arafat's Fatah organization.
Hamas, seeing a chance to gain more official power in lieu of Arafat's ill health, has suggested that there be a collective Palestinian leadership in the post-Arafat era until general elections - to avoid violence and disunity. Arafat's entrenched Fatah organization, however, will not likely look favorably on sharing power with Hamas and the Islamists even during the interim until elections can be organized.
At the same time, the Israeli government is in turmoil over Sharon's plan to move Israelis out of settlements in Gaza and the West Bank. Last week, the Knesset voted to approve the plan in principle by a vote of 67 to 45, as Sharon brought up Palestinian demographics and the likelihood of Jews' being outnumbered by Arabs soon if the two groups were not separated. A majority Arab population in Israel could destroy Israel through the power of the vote. Sharon accused the settlers of be wonderful people with a "messianic complex" that they needed to get over. They had to stop thinking of Israel as God's land to reclaim, Sharon told them, to the chagrin of many settlers who still hold fast to the Old Testament.
Dina Moskowitz, who came to Israel in 1985, considered the bill with sadness. "If this gets passed, God is going to punish us. We're in for really bad times."
Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is against the disengagement plan and has threatened to quit in 9 days if Sharon does not agree to put the plan to a national referendum. If Netanyahu resigns, he could openly oppose Sharon.
This week the actual details of the disengagement plan are being worked out, with many in Sharon's Likud party protesting that the plan would not only throw people out of their homes, but would also make it illegal for them to protest the event.
MK Chaim Katz (Likud) argued, "What kind of state is this that prevents the right of protest? And the confiscation of the property - what kind of thing is this? At least if you would say that the government will hold the property in escrow for them... But whom are we trying to punish? The residents who we sent to live there legally on behalf of the State of Israel? While Hamas celebrates our 'retreat', we threaten our own residents who we are expelling that they face jail and the government's confiscation of their property?!"
Jonathan Patinkin, 53, the patriarch of three generations of settlers the West Bank offered, "I will tell you something my neighbors in Beit El and even my family doesn't like to hear: I would give up my home for real peace. I would do it. But this is not peace. There is no agreement."