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Happy Birthday, Mr. President

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Young Ehud Barak had better get a move on with that peace process Ė if Yasser Arafatís superstitions prove true, the Israeli leader may soon have no Palestinian counterpart with whom to deal. Arafat turned 70 on Wednesday, and according to Palestinian sources he has long believed the warning of some unnamed seer that he would not live more than 70 years. "During his recent meeting with Barak, Arafat was reported to be shaking badly and had great difficulty concentrating," says TIME West Bank correspondent Jamil Hamad. "And the fact that he has failed to prepare an heir has the Israelis and Americans very worried." Western governments have tended to turn a blind eye to rampant corruption and authoritarianism in Arafatís Palestinian Authority, in the belief that he is the sole guarantor of the peace process. But that may turn out to have been a risky gambit as Arafatís political support among Palestinians declines along with his health.

Arafat is currently both president of the Palestinian Authority and chairman of the PLO, but those positions may be separated once he leaves the scene. "The PA would govern Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, while the PLO would continue to act as a representative of the Palestinian diaspora spread across the Arab world," says Hamad. But fear of a challenge to his leadership has restrained Arafat from cultivating candidates for either position, and even the procedures for choosing a replacement are far from clear. "The only certainty," says Hamad, "is that whoever replaces him will be 100 percent different from Arafat in style and outlook." And thatís not a comforting thought for either Israel or the U.S.

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