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Europe

Time for a Change in Palestinian Leadership?

Ailing Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has been flown to Paris for medical treatment. Even if he regains his health, his political life seems to have reached its end, said a leading German politician.

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Arafat's supporters are praying for his recovery

Yasser Arafat appeared in good spirits as he arrived at a French military hospital in the southwestern Paris suburb of Clamart on Friday. Yet the poor health of the Palestinian leader will have a significant impact on the future of the Middle East.

Gert Weisskirchen, foreign policy spokesman for Germany's ruling Social Democrats, said the time had come for a change in the Palestinian leadership. "Arafat's system is drawing to an end," he told German public radio Südwestfunk.

"I think that this is exactly the right time for more moderate forces to fill this vacuum," said Weisskirchen. "They could give Palestine a real chance at being part of a process to move forward together with Israel."

But German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said that he foresees no void in the Palestinian leadership despite Arafat's hospitalization. "I have the impression that there will not be a power vacuum, rather on the contrary everything will be done to avoid that," Fischer said.

Europe needs to get involved

According to Weisskirchen, there were by all means "level-headed people" next in line among Palestinian politicians. He said moderates at the helm would presumably give the guarantee that they will act as Europe expects.

"At any rate, they'll know that they will only get infrastructure and financial support when they are free of corruption," Weisskirchen said. "This will be a stipulation for aid by the European Union."

Christian Sterzing from the German Heinrich Böll Foundation's office in Ramallah said now is the chance for Europe to get re-involved in the Middle East. "They have to finally forget their reservations and hit on this vacuum," he told Deutschlandfunk.

Due to the elections in the United States, it could take months before a new US administration would be fit for work. "But the developments here are so rapid that there needs to be immediate and quick support," said Sterzing.

He said he hoped that EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana will be able to suggest a realistic plan of action to the EU Foreign Ministers. "There are signs that the EU is ready to return to action," said Sterzing.

Arafat's political battle is lost

Medics have diagnosed the 75-year-old Arafat as suffering from a potentially fatal blood disorder. This required further tests outside the West Bank, where he has been kept under virtual house arrest for the last three years.

The Israeli government, whose troops had been confining him to his West Bank headquarters, said earlier that it would authorize Arafat to leave his base for treatment and return thereafter.

On Thursday, French President Jacques Chirac sent a get-well message to the man who has come to symbolize the Palestinian struggle for independence.

"France, as you know, backs the aspirations you embody for the creation of a viable, prosperous and peaceful Palestinian state alongside a state of Israel assured of its security," the president wrote. He signed off the letter by stressing "his sincerest wishes for a recovery" and extending his "cordial friendship."

But many feel that even if Arafat regains his health, his political battle is lost.

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