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CNN BREAKING NEWS

Arafat Dies

Aired November 10, 2004 - 23:01   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


AARON BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening again. I'm Aaron Brown in New York. We can now report that Yasser Arafat has died. He died in a Paris hospital. He has been there for than a week now, getting progressively more ill, though it has never been clear -- it has not been clear from the beginning exactly what it was that ailed Mr. Arafat. Everything -- lots of rumors, lots of talk about blood disorders, blood disease, AIDS at one point, poisoning at one point. None of which we can answer tonight.
What we can tell you is that Mr. Arafat, who embodied for most of our lifetime really the Palestinian cause and the search on the Palestinian side for a homeland has died in Paris. And now begins the process of figuring out who will replace him and what that person will be able to do to further the cause, Mr. Arafat's cause, of a Palestinian homeland, something in his lifetime Chairman Arafat was unable to do.

John Vause is in Ramallah. He has been able to confirm this and can add to the story -- John.

JOHN VAUSE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hello again, Aaron. We have been speaking with a number of Palestinian officials, and we did get the official word from the chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erakat, a short time ago telling CNN just simply Arafat is dead.

A number of officials led by Abu Mazen, Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian former prime minister, left Ramallah in the early hours of this morning. They headed to Jordan, for a flight to Cairo to make the final funeral arrangements for Arafat's funeral, which will be held in Cairo possibly within the next 24 hours. Those details still need to be worked out.

We are also expecting a press conference here at Arafat's compound in Ramallah from the speaker of the Palestinian Parliament. We heard from Palestinian officials in the last few days that the speaker of the parliament will be the man who under the Constitution assumes Arafat's responsibilities as president of the Palestinian Authority. He will have that position for 60 days before they call elections.

But the big question now is will they be able to call those elections, will they be held, or will there simply be the kind of succession that you normally see in Arab nations.

A lot of people are skeptical that they will have those elections, but right now the Palestinian Authority just simply trying to work out what the situation is with the funeral and where they go from here. Many people within the Palestinian Authority over the last few days, especially when this story first broke and Arafat slipped into deeper and deeper health problems, were left in shock. I'm told by one source that many of those high ranking officials have been left like orphans who simply floundering, unable to work out what to do -- Aaron.

BROWN: John, just stay with us for a bit, if you will. Saeb Erakat, who has been the chief Palestinian negotiator, a close aide to Mr. Arafat for many, many years now joins us on the phone. What can you tell us about these last few days and these last few hours?

SAEB ERAKAT, AIDE TO ARAFAT: Well I just spoke to Dr. Nasser Kidwa about three minutes, five minutes ago, and he confirmed to me that President Arafat passed away. And the last few days were very painful, very difficult days, and now after these painful days for President Arafat is that...

BROWN: Mr. Erakat, I hope this doesn't sound insensitive, I don't mean it at all in a insensitive way -- do we know the cause of death?

ERAKAT: I think there will be a report, diagnosis by the French doctors. Up to this moment, I don't.

BROWN: OK, sir, do you know where President Arafat's body will be taken next?

ERAKAT: It will taken from France to Cairo now, to lie in state ceremonies. And after that, it will be flown from Cairo to Ramallah, where he will be buried temporarily in Ramallah. And I said temporarily, because the final resting place will be in East Jerusalem. One day we will have our own independent state, and with East Jerusalem as its capital. And this is the plan. This is what was agreed within our leadership meeting yesterday.

BROWN: As know, sir, probably as well as anyone, President Arafat in our part of the world, in the United States, certainly in Israel, a very polarizing figure, in many quarters. To the Palestinian people and to the Palestinian movement, how would you describe his importance?

ERAKAT: Well, President Arafat legacy will be he is the one who kept the Palestinian national identity from extinction. He gathered the Palestinian people, he united them, and he kept the national entity alive. And at the same time, his legacy will be that he initiated the peace of the brave. He is the one who began the peace process. He is the one who began the two-state solution, and I think that will be his major legacy. It is very painful and heartbreaking that President Arafat is dead and the Israeli occupation of our land has not finished yet.

BROWN: And again, I hope this doesn't seem insensitive. The fact is that he, for whatever efforts went into it, was never able to close the deal, was never able to make a deal to create a Palestinian state, and isn't it realistic to assume that that in fact will be his legacy, that his dream went unrealized in the end?

ERAKAT: Well, the deal will come when things will be revealed, and the whole world will know exactly what took place in the peace process. See, the question today, the question is Israel ready for peace? And I mean ready for peace, is Israel ready to withdraw to the '67 borders? Is Israel ready to withdraw from East Jerusalem? If the answer is no, I'm afraid whoever will preside the Palestinian people will be linked to terrorism. The question is that Arafat was ready, as we are, for peace, to sign a deal. (UNINTELLIGIBLE) two-step solution, on the '67 border. He has recognized the state of Israel's right of existence in 78 percent of historic Palestine, that is the '67 border.

Today, if the Israelis are not ready to deliver the '67 border and East Jerusalem, I'm afraid if we get Mr. Mandela, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King and Gandhi to be the president of the Palestinian people, I'm sure that the Israeli government will -- and some circles in Washington -- will be able to link them to terrorism. This is the truth and this is the real question.

So the question should be, is Israel ready for peace? Because if they are ready for peace, in accordance with the agreed agreements, in accordance with the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) provided for in the agreements, in accordance with the two-state solution and the '67 borders, I don't think peace will take long to achieve.

The question to the Israelis, are you ready to pay the price for peace? That is the question. And all that we witnessed from President Arafat, he's the one who recognizes the state of Israel's right to exist. He is the one who began the peace of the brave.

But at the end of the day, he ended in siege, he ended in (UNINTELLIGIBLE), he ended in being told by others that he refused the deal.

Well, you know if it is my word against Israelis' word in the Congress and the Senate, I know I don't stand a chance. But the truth is, people should ask. We have accepted Israel's right to exist in 78 percent of historic Palestine, '67 borders. And did Israel ever accept the Palestinian state under '67 border? Did Israel ever accept withdrawal to the '67 border and East Jerusalem? These are the questions, because in this answer, any Palestinian leadership that will come, if Israel is not ready to deliver the price for peace and the requirements for peace, I'm afraid whoever will be the president of the Palestinians will be linked to terrorism in one way or another.

BROWN: Well, let me bring this -- Mr. Erakat, let me bring this back to President Arafat for a moment. When did you last see him?

ERAKAT: I last saw him at 6:30 in the morning on the 29th of October, when he left to Paris for treatment. I spoke to him, and that was the last time I spoke to him or seen him.

BROWN: And when -- back -- that's not that many days ago, 12 or so days ago. Are you -- did you think then that whatever it was that was ailing him would ultimately claim his life? ERAKAT: Well, it was a, you know, my thoughts and hopes and prayers were with him all the time. But at the same time, you know, I was speaking to (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Egyptian, and Jordanian and Palestinian doctors who were treating him while he was in the Muqata, and he left for Paris, and the situation was very, very difficult.

BROWN: Just a final question or two, be as honest as you can with me. How concerned are you, sir -- few people have worked as hard on this problem as you -- how concerned are you that there is a vacuum that has been created now, and that in a vacuum the most dangerous or irresponsible or violent parts of the Palestinian movement will move in and assert control over the Palestinian leadership?

ERAKAT: Well, I'm hopeful, and I hope that our institutions will function as you have witnessed in the last 12 days. And we had people that can be proud of our institutions and our basic law and the internal regulations that function. I believe the basic law, the speaker of the Legislative Council, Rawhi Fattouh, he will be sworn as the temporary president. And he will immediately declare or call upon the Palestinian people to vote for the presidential elections in 60 days. I hope that the war and especially President Bush will stand firm on this issue, with security for the Palestinians to choose their leaders, their new leaders through fair and free elections, because that is the only way Palestinians will choose their leaders.

I hope that the Israelis will not put any obstacles. We have the 1995 agreement with them that facilitated the last election of President Arafat. We can go with it, and I believe if we go in elections in an expeditious fashion, in an orderly fashion, free and fair elections, with international monitors, I believe there will not be a vacuum created. And at the same time, you know, the other institutions, like the Executive Committee of the PLO, which is the highest executive branch, will nominated between its members someone and then vote him in as the president of the -- or the chairman of the Executive Committee of the PLO. The cabinet will function as usual, with Mr. Ahmed Qorei as prime minister.

I believe that we can make the transition as smooth as possible, provided that we can carry out our presidential elections in the next 60 days.

BROWN: Well, we hope you are able to do that, and this will be the most extreme test, I think, for Palestinian leadership in a very long time. Everybody understands the enormous stakes that are involved for not only the region but in many ways the world, and so we wish you nothing but the best in that regard. And given your closeness and your long association with President Arafat, we also, sir, express our condolences to you, and we appreciate your time. Saeb Erakat, who for many years has been the principal negotiator for the Palestinian side, a long time aide. I'm not sure that we can -- I'm not sure that we know -- I'm not sure I can say friend, but certainly an aide and associate, a longtime associate of President Arafat, who as we said earlier, has died in Paris. He was 75 years old.

Mr. Erakat mentioned the need now for some Americans support for the process that is going to go forward. Our senior White House correspondent John King is on the phone with us tonight. This word now, and not for the first time as it turned out, but this word now officially has gone to the White House, and we expect there some White House reaction -- John.

JOHN KING, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Aaron, only private reaction so far. The administration official I talked to said that they were awaiting the official word, and the White House had actually been told some time ago by the French government that for all intents and purposes, and this may still sound cold and excuse me -- but that Yasser Arafat was dead, and it was simply a decision for the Palestinians and Mr. Arafat's wife to decide when to take him off life support.

We are told that there has been a statement by the president prepared most likely not to be released until the morning. If we get it in advance of that, we will of course report it. That voices condolences, but also quickly turns and says the challenge now is for the new Palestinian leadership to step forward and prove its commitment to democracy and freedom for the Palestinian people and to the peace process.

So the president said pretty much the same thing today in the Oval Office when he was asked about this. Mr. Bush has made no secret of his contempt for Mr. Arafat. It may sound tough to say that at a moment of Mr. Arafat's passing, but the Bush administration has believed from day one that he was simply not committed to peace.

And I must tell you from my own personal experience, that was the view of President Clinton as well as he left office. I heard Saeb Erakat in your interview with him talk about his view that the Israelis had been long the obstacle to peace. It is the view of the former President Bill Clinton that Yasser Arafat had the best deal any Palestinian leader will ever get on the table at the end of the Clinton administration from Prime Minister Ehud Barak, and he simply refused to sign it.

So in the view of President Clinton -- and it is the view of the Bush administration -- that Mr. Arafat refused to sign that deal because he would not take responsibility, if you will, for the Palestinian people coming to him and saying, where are the jobs, where are the roads and bridges? President Clinton and then President Bush decided that Yasser Arafat made a decision to block the peace, and now the question at the Bush White House is what Palestinian leadership will emerge now, and will that Palestinian leadership have the political support to reenergize the peace process? And Mr. Erakat rightly raises the question, will President Bush commit the time and the energy to try and do that?

BROWN: I want to talk about that, just to keep our viewers sort of clear on what they have been seeing. There was a shot on the left side of your screen a few moments ago. That was a shot of Ramallah, and that was a shot of the Palestinian flag, I gather being lowered to half-staff.

It is early in the morning there, and one presumes that the word will spread quickly but has not spread yet, that Yasser Arafat has passed away. The announcement was made simultaneously, essentially, both in Paris and in Ramallah. The pictures you are looking at now, President Clinton meeting with Ehud Barak and with President Arafat in that last-ditch effort to find a peaceful solution in the waning days of the Clinton administration. There was a deal put on the table.

John, I was talking this afternoon -- I was in Minneapolis, I was talking to former Vice President Mondale, and he echoed in fact what you had just said about both President Bush, President Clinton, that they both -- Vice President Mondale and Jimmy Carter in many ways, for all the work they put into trying to bridge these difficult gaps between the Israelis and the Palestinians, in the end they believed that Yasser Arafat either couldn't or wouldn't deliver.

Now that he has passed away, there are opportunities on the Palestinian side certainly, but there are also pressures on the American side to become more engaged in the process, pressures that come from the Europeans, from Tony Blair, among others. I think there will be pressures from a lot of other corners too.

KING: I think the pressures and the delicate nature of this moment is remarkable. You mentioned Prime Minister Blair. He will be at the White House tomorrow. He has long urged President Bush to make the Middle East peace initiative more of a priority. Prime Minister Blair tends to agree with President Bush, that Mr. Arafat was not a person to deal with. The French and others in the European community have disagreed and said that he is the leader of Palestinian people, like him or not, you have to deal with him.

Now an era is passing. And the question is, will Mr. Bush engage with the new Palestinian leadership -- there is quite an irony here, because the White House believes that that new leadership will be Mahmoud Abbas, who was appointed by Yasser Arafat as the prime minister. Mr. Bush invested a great deal of time and energy, met with Mr. Abbas after refusing to meet with Mr. Arafat throughout his term. And then if you agree with the Bush White House prospective on this, and many other governments from around the world share it, just when Mr. Abbas was prepared to engage in a peace negotiations with the Sharon government of Israel, Yasser Arafat pulled the rug out from under him.

So now the question is, will the new Palestinian leadership have the credibility with the Palestinian people, have the courage to move forward? What will be the timetable? How willing will they be to sit down with the Sharon government? How willing in exchange will the Sharon government be to sit down with the new Palestinian...

BROWN: That's exactly right. I mean, we talk about the pressures on the president. There are also now, with the passing of Mr. Arafat, new pressures on the Sharon government. Mr. Arafat, President Arafat was a good and convenient villain, if you will, for the Sharon government to do as it wished, and now that too has left the table.

John, stay around for a little while. John Vause is in Ramallah, and he -- excuse me -- he joins us again. John, to what extent has the word, is the word spreading there that President Arafat has died?

VAUSE: Well, mostly, Aaron, we are seeing reporters gathering to Arafat's compound here. Now, there was a statement a short time ago, as you mentioned, a statement put out from the Muqata, from the speaker of the Palestinian Parliament, confirming that Arafat has in fact died. All we are seeing right now are journalists arriving. It is early in the morning here, just on 20 past 6:00 in the morning.

It will be interesting to see what the reaction will be as Palestinians wake up to this news. There has been a very muted, a very guarded response over the last two weeks, ever since Arafat left his compound to seek treatment in the Paris hospital with that mystery illness. We haven't seen the outpouring of emotion on the streets. We haven't seen the vigils really here in Ramallah or in many parts across the West Bank. There have been some street marches in Gaza and a street march in Bethlehem yesterday, but nothing what we expected. In the past, thousands of Palestinians turned up to the Muqata whenever Arafat's life was threatened by the Israelis, but we just haven't seen that.

But now that the official announcement has been made, that of course could change. But it could also be a sign that many Palestinians, especially in the West Bank, just see that Arafat no longer played a part in their life. They had respect for him as the father of the nation, a man who brought them the hopes of a Palestinian state, but he was increasingly being seen as the leader, if not a corrupt leader, but the leader of a corrupt government.

And on the issue of the new leadership, it will be very, very difficult for Mahmoud Abbas to have the street creditability that Yasser Arafat still had, regardless of the perception of corruption. One recent opinion poll taken just during September had him on 3 percent of support amongst the Palestinians. Ahmed Qorei, the current Palestinian prime minister, had 2 percent. The most popular man apart from Arafat, it seems, is Marwan Barghouti, who was a senior official in Arafat's Fatah Party. He came in about 15 percent. But right now he is serving five life sentences in an Israeli jail.

So this new leadership, while it may be liked -- supported, if you like, by the Israelis and the Americans, there is very little street cred here amongst the Palestinians, and that is going to be the toughest test of all for Abbas, and it is also a test for the Israel Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. How much support does he give to Mahmoud Abbas as a future leader? If he embraces Mahmoud Abbas, then he loses all creditability at all, but if he doesn't ease up, doesn't give Mahmoud Abbas a chance to implement reforms and improve the lives of Palestinians, then he could very well bring down his government, much like some people say he brought down his prime ministership last year, after he was just prime minister for four months -- Aaron.

BROWN: John, excuse me. Stay with us. Also, we will sort of watch the street reaction there. As John mentioned, it is a little past 6:00 in the morning, I guess about 6:25 in the morning in Ramallah, and people are waking up. And they will wake to the news that the single most important leader in the Palestinian movement since its inception has died. Yasser Arafat died in a hospital in Paris of a blood disorder of some sort. It has been a considerable mystery, in fact, what exactly it was, but he left the West Bank about two weeks ago, went to Paris, and his health declined rapidly since. For the last several days, almost a week, there has been a sense, but not a whole lot of information, a sense that he has been on life support. And the question -- perhaps as tasteless as it sounds right now -- the question has been for some time, at what point would the Palestinian leadership and Mr. Arafat's family, principally his wife, agree to take him off life support. And apparently that decision was made a short time ago in Paris.

Mamoun Fandy helps us analyze events in the Middle East, and he joins us now. We have been waiting in many respects for this tomorrow, this day would come and try to figure out what it would mean. Is there within the Palestinian movement today the kind of leader who even if today doesn't have the street creditability that a Yasser Arafat had can establish it to the degree that he can actually lead a very fractured group of people?

MAMOUN FANDY, CNN MIDDLE EAST ANALYST: Well, I think, Aaron, what you have, I mean, the Palestinians will wake up tomorrow facing a tremendous void. I mean, this is the man that they have known since 1948 here. Arafat is really -- Arafat is Mr. Palestine. He is the cause itself. His history is the history of the struggle.

And the people around him, there is no man that can fill his shoes. This is the man that they call him the Fitiyar (ph), the patriarch, the father of the nation. He is the potentate, he is everything for the Palestinians, and most people who are at the age of 50 now, which is practically 80 percent of the Palestinian people, are from the age of 50 down, they have not seen any leader but Yasser Arafat.

I think it would be very difficult for anyone to fill that void. Mahmoud Abbas, although he is very highly respected internationally and in the Middle East, he does not have the power base that Arafat had. Ahmed Qorei is also a PLO bureaucrat; he does not have that. Already you can smell dissension in the voice of Ahmed Jibril, who came on the air practically saying that even the elections will not bring the Palestinians together because there are more Palestinians outside Palestine than there are people inside, that there are six million Palestinians in Diaspora. Many of them are in Jordan in refugee camps, in Lebanon. These are people who are loyal to Arafat and to the PLO as an organization that represents their national aspirations. And very few people commanded that kind of respect, the kind of charisma, that kind of fatherhood, if you will, to the Palestinians.

BROWN: I'm a little maybe confused as to -- to some degree, I suppose the importance of that -- you have this enormous Palestinian Diaspora throughout the Middle East. Why does it matter?

FANDY: Well, it matters a lot. I mean, the Palestinians in Jordan, for example, they are a majority in Jordan, if you will, and they are a major factor. In Lebanon, in Jordan, throughout the Gulf, in Syria. This is -- Arafat was the glue throughout. I mean, this is the man that kept them under control, that some kind of hope for some return that this man symbolized. After that, you will get factions taking control. It is likely to be some kind of warlordism, if you will. There is no consensus on anybody. Even if a collective council might not provide the kind of consensus that Arafat resembled.

BROWN: Does this mean to you -- does this mean that you would not be surprised if we saw in either Lebanon or Jordan or both, unrest?

FANDY: I think -- I think probably the Palestinians will try very much for their national cause, Aaron, to present a united front, at least the first few days. But after that, I mean, the fissures are in place. You have seen the differences from the first statement issued by Mrs. Arafat in Paris, and today followed by the leader of the PFLP, that's the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Ahmed Jibril, practically saying that he would not sign on on the elections. This is the man who -- in Syria. It's very likely that -- I mean, we have also the big unknowns of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad.

BROWN: Yes.

FANDY: These are the people that Ahmed Qorei tried to reach out to last week in Gaza.

BROWN: Yes.

FANDY: And the signs were not very promising.

BROWN: Just one or two fairly quick ones. If you had to pick a moment where President Arafat was at his peak of power, when would -- how long ago would that have been?

FANDY: Well, I think it was at his peak, when you can really, you can choose various moments. I mean, there is the moment in '74 when he went to the U.N., he said practically holding an olive branch on the one hand, and the gun on another. There is the time when Arafat practically came out on the world stage and was seen as a respectable figure. That was an important moment. An important moment when he basically accepted the notion of two-state solution. A very big moment when he appeared with President Clinton on the White House lawn. I mean, this was the ultimate recognition that any head of a national movement could ask for. And then you have him being seen as equal to Rabin and Peres as a Nobel laureate, after the Oslo agreement.

There are some milestones in the life of Arafat that are very important, that started from Cairo, then Lebanon, then Tunis, and then to Palestine.

BROWN: Just a final question. It's, first of all, just an observation. It strikes me that as you were talking that to a certain extent he has been over time -- he has become almost a caricature in the United States. And he is a much more complicated, and was always a much more complicated person than that.

When all is said and done, and historians go to work, do you believe that he will be seen as a man who for whatever reasons, and the reasons were always complicated, missed opportunities for his people?

FANDY: Well, I think Arafat represented a national struggle, but he always came to the brink but never made the crucial decision. All his life was -- you can characterize it by almost a leader. He was there.

BROWN: Yes.

FANDY: And then almost (UNINTELLIGIBLE). He is almost a peacemaker. He is almost the man who would cut the deal with Barak. But at the last minute, Arafat just walked away. He is almost Arafat, if you will.

BROWN: If you look at it that way, and I -- to be honest, I agree with you, that there were moments where it seemed like the best deal was -- and I know Palestinians will disagree with this -- but the best deal was on the table, and what had to happen was he needed to pull the trigger and he never had the courage to pull the trigger, if you will.

FANDY: Yes. I mean, after that deal, I mean, he was looking around. He was looking for political cover. He could not find it from the regional leaders, places like Jordan, Egypt, or Saudi Arabia and other places, did not provide him the political cover that he needed. The Palestinian factions did not provide him the political cover that he needed to cut a deal.

And this is why he walked away. But after he walked away, also, it worked very well for him. He became the most popular leader. His popularity raised up to 80 percent at that time. He actually, before that, Arafat was a subject of tremendous criticism from Palestinian intellectuals and activists and civil society leaders.

But after that walk-away from the Barak deal, he reinvented himself again as the national leader and as the man who would not give into the pressure of the only superpower that exists in the world, and that is the United States.

BROWN: Mr. Fandy, thanks for your time tonight, on short notice, and for your observations. As always, thank you.

I wonder if we can go back. There was a shot about 15, 20 seconds ago of Mr. Arafat and Mr. Sharon. These are two long-standing adversaries in the region, almost literally from the beginning of the Israeli state. These two men have grown old together, clashed together. Agreed, frankly, on virtually nothing.

Mr. Sharon rises to the prime ministership of his country, and has in a very difficult circumstance, has been very aggressive, and some would say far too aggressive in his handling of particularly the occupied territories. And his old adversary now, 75-year-old Yasser Arafat, has died in Paris. And it is unclear who now will take that picture on the right side of the screen, opposite Mr. Sharon and how Mr. Sharon will have to deal with things.

What we believe will happen next is that Mr. Arafat's body will be flown to Cairo. The Egyptian government -- Mr. Arafat was born in Egypt. The Egyptian government will play host to a state funeral there. There will be some period, it is not clear to me how long, but some period where he will lie in state there. And it will be interesting to see how the world -- the Arab world reacts to all of that.

Then his body will go to Ramallah, and he will be buried for a time in the Palestinian view in the compound, or near the compound in Ramallah.

To the Palestinian side tonight, the ultimate goal is to get him buried in East Jerusalem, should it come to pass at some point that the Palestinians take control of that portion, a largely Arab portion of Jerusalem. You will find very few people in Israel proper tonight who will say that will ever happen, but that is the Palestinian hope, at least.

Fionnuala Sweeney has been waiting for some days now in Paris for what I think she would acknowledge, and I think everyone there would acknowledge was a sense of inevitability, which finally came a short time ago.

FIONNUALA SWEENEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You took the words right out of my mouth, the seemingly inevitable has happened. Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, the Palestinian Authority president, the chief of the PLO, and the man who put the Palestinian national struggle on the map has passed away here at this Paris hospital just less than two hours ago.

General Estripeau coming out, as he has done variously at times over the week, making a statement a short while ago, saying that only that Yasser Arafat had passed away. But those simple words of course have great resonances around the world.

The implications of this are so much more far reaching than here in Paris -- Aaron.

BROWN: Well, and some of them are just impossible right now. I mean, we can -- and we have -- we can speculate on what might happen next, and who might be there, and how that might impact both the Palestinians and the Israelis and the rest of the world.

But to a certain extent, in part because Arafat never designated a successor and was somewhat paranoid about giving anyone any power at all, these are a lot of cards that have to be played out of the deck, where we don't really -- we don't know all the players, necessarily. We don't know all the allegiances of the players.

And we're just going to have to watch in some respects how it all plays out.

SWEENEY: Well, at the same time, you know, the Palestinian Authority, despite the debacle over the last week about the information that had been flown from this hospital and the argument between Suha Arafat, the wife of Yasser Arafat, and the Palestinian Authority, the Palestinian officials have actually been quite united, and with great respect in the last week or so in trying to maintain that they are not just a tribal entity here, that they have institutions, and they have been at great pains to point out at least internationally, that there are institutions in place, that there is a Constitution.

That what is going to happen now is that the speaker of the Parliament, Rawhi Fattouh, takes over for a period of 60 days. And then there should be elections held.

And of course, within the Palestinian Authority, and indeed outside the Palestinian Authority, in the West Bank and Gaza, there have been many people saying that this is the time for reform. And so if those elections can feasibly be held within the next 60 days, we may see quite a sea change in the whole Palestinian-Israeli landscape.

BROWN: This is, as we were saying to Saeb Erakat 10, 15 minutes ago, this is the most extraordinary test for the Palestinian Authority ever in its existence. It's one thing to have something written down on paper. It's another thing for it actually to play out in real time, real life, with all the political pressures on the street and elsewhere. And these are institutions that have never been tested to this degree.

SWEENEY: I hear what you're saying. And indeed, I think that many Palestinian officials would agree that for a long time, Yasser Arafat has been the sole authority about decisions. He decided who went where, where the money was spent, who made the decisions. He decided all of these things.

And I think what has happened in the last week -- and I say this with all the greatest respect for Suha Arafat -- but I think this sort of spat with Suha Arafat made the Palestinian Authority wake up. They realized that this is a man who was not only the property, so to speak, of Suha Arafat, but also the father of a nation.

And I think it really galvanized them, particularly here in Paris over the last weekend, when they saw this debacle unfolding about all the contradictions and the information. Was he unconscious? Was he in a coma? The lack of information coming from the hospital. And the hospital of course could only say what it could in statements because of what Suha Arafat allowed them to say.

And I think in a sense that that woke up the Palestinian Authority. And they realized, well, if we can't handle this, this illness of this Palestinian Authority president, the father of our nation, how is it going to look to the world? Not just the world, but also the Palestinian people, in terms of how we are going to carry through any kind of peace process with the Israelis?

BROWN: I think you've got it exactly right. That is the -- both the nature of the test and the importance of the test. At least as we see it here. Thank you. Fionnuala Sweeney, who is in Paris.

The picture that you saw briefly on the right side of your screen, and will see I suspect in a moment again, is the picture of Ramallah. It is, oh, about 20 to 7:00 in the morning on a Thursday morning. It is a day when history is being written again on the West Bank, in the occupied territories on the West Bank, history that Yasser Arafat, for whom most living Palestinians have known no other leader, and no one more important in their national life, has died in Paris at the age of 75, for those of you who may just now be joining us.

John Vause is in Ramallah this morning. And John, I assume the city is waking up, and the word is spreading. And we do see some activity down in the street, not a lot of it, but that sometimes has to do as much with the camera location as anything else.

VAUSE: That's right, Aaron. We are seeing journalists arrive at Arafat's compound. They've been camped out here for most of the last couple of weeks, especially over the last few days, when word came from Paris that Arafat's health had taken a turn for the worse and he was slipping in and out of consciousness and reached a critical point.

But the issue of the Palestinian response today and in the next few days, we are expecting to see a few things. There will be that united front that Fionnuala was talking about, especially amongst the old guard, the Palestinian Authority officials, the members of the Fatah Party, Arafat's political party.

But of course, there is the big problem of what Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the other militant groups plan to do once this period of mourning is over.

I spoke with an Israeli intelligence official a few days ago. He said that Israel has great concerns that this new leadership, despite how moderate it is, despite its best of intentions, may not be able to hold this together.

And the reason for that is this: Arafat, to keep himself in power, had a system of bribes and corruption, paying off people, keeping a very decentralized system around him, where there was no obvious challenger, but basically keeping people paid off in Nablus, Tulkarem, Hebron and in Gaza, that kind of thing.

Now, the problem for this new leadership when it comes in, it certainly does not have the credibility or the popularity of Yasser Arafat. And this Israeli intelligence official believes that this whole system that Arafat put in place will disintegrate, and this new leadership simply won't have the credibility on the ground, or more importantly, the money, which Arafat controlled, to keep these people in check. This one Israeli intelligence official told me that there's a great deal of concern right now amongst Israeli officials and security officials about what will happen in the West Bank, and especially in Gaza in the coming weeks ahead -- Aaron.

BROWN: You know, there are so many -- there are so many unknowns right now. Just spinning around the one central known fact, which is that Yasser Arafat has died.

John, stay with us. We will get back to you in a moment. Andrea Koppel, who covers the State Department for us, has been working the phones and working her beat. And she joins us now from there, or at least from a phone nearby. Andrea, what's the official or unofficial reaction you are getting out of there tonight?

ANDREA KOPPEL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Aaron, I have spoken to a senior State Department official who tells us that the U.S. has not received independent confirmation, either from the Palestinians, or from the French government.

But having said that, this official noted that he had seen and many within the Bush administration had seen the reports coming out of Paris, the confirmation from the military hospital where Arafat has been for the last two weeks. And so it was really just a formality that we are talking about for them to get a separate confirmation.

But what I can also tell you is that the level of U.S. representation at the Arafat memorial service that is going to be held in Cairo, presumably in the next number of hours, is not going to be as high a level as Palestinians and others in the Arab world would have liked.

There hasn't been official announcement of this from the Bush administration, but it is most likely going to be at an assistant secretary of state level, a man who was known to the Arab world. His name is William Burns, he is the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, would be most likely the one to travel, representing the U.S. government. And then there could be, there might be some private Americans who would attend. We have heard a variety of names floating there, Aaron, but no firm confirmation of that.

BROWN: And would I be wildly off base if I said that will -- excuse me -- be seen in many parts of the region as disrespectful?

KOPPEL: I'm sure that there will be some governments who could read into it that way. I think it would be seen a disappointment. This is a very delicate situation for the Bush administration in particular, not the least of which is because President Bush had never met with Yasser Arafat deliberately, had called him an obstacle to peace, something that the Israeli government had echoed, and had called very deliberately and very specifically for new Palestinian leadership.

So Yasser Arafat, unlike the way that Bill Clinton had embraced Yasser Arafat as somebody that he viewed as a man who could make peace with Israel, the Bush administration and President Bush never saw Yasser Arafat that way. They saw him as an impediment to peace.

So if they had sent a higher level, it would have almost flown in the face of what the president had stood for for the last four years. So it is certainly not surprising. But it will be a disappointment to the Arab world and to the Palestinians.

BROWN: Andrea, thank you. Andrea Koppel covering the State Department. That's an interesting piece of information. And it's why reporters cover beats, to be honest. They think of things that the rest of us don't. And that is one of the questions on the table is, who represents the United States government.

Stephen Cohen, who is one of the great authorities on the region, joins us now by telephone. Just to pick up on that, and then we will move on. It strikes me there are a couple of ways you can look at it.

You can send a relatively low-level State Department official to the funeral because you weren't crazy about Arafat in the first place. Or you can send a higher-level official in a more respectful way in hopes that that translates down the road to a more comfortable beneficial relationship with the Palestinian side, that might ultimately lead to good things.

STEPHEN COHEN, MIDDLE EAST EXPERT: Yes. It is very important that the United States have a serious representation. Not only because of the question because of indication to the Palestinian people of respect for their loss, but even more than that, because the struggle for leadership in a succession to Arafat is now under way. And this would give the United States an opportunity to talk with those who are part of this new collective leadership about the process they are going to go through in order to legitimate their leadership, and in order to solidify their leadership, not only through the institutions of the Palestinians but also by instituting a serious end to violence.

This is going to begin by the fact that the funeral is starting at an airport in Cairo, which has been the place where the negotiations have taken place among the Palestinian factions over these last months.

And therefore, the Egyptians are an important part of whether or not there will be an acceptance of this transitional leadership by Hamas, and by other Palestinian Islamic groups in such a way that this would not lead to a serious internal struggle before they have an opportunity to bring about a Palestinian election if that were permitted by Israel, with the assistance of the United States.

BROWN: All right. Let me ask you a couple of things about what you just said. We can underscore that we should watch carefully what the Egyptian government does, and how the Egyptian government plays this. Is the Jordanian government important at this moment? Is the Syrian government important at this moment? Or is it really all on President Mubarak and his government in Egypt?

COHEN: In terms of a peaceful structural transition, the kind that has been begun by Abu Ala and Abu Mazen, the Egyptians are the main people who are going to be backing it. Although the Jordanians will help. The big question about Syria is whether Syria will decide to support the challenge to that leadership, which is being posed by Farouk Kaddoumi, an old-time leader of Fatah, who used to be one of the colleagues of Arafat in the old days, but who never accepted Arafat's decision to go into the negotiations with Yitzhak Rabin, and to accept the Oslo process, and to accept the PLO recognition of Israel. That man, who has not gone back into the territories, and who has remained outside in exile since the time that Arafat went into the territories is now challenging the leadership of Abu Mazen and Abu Ala. And if the Syrians decide to support that challenge, it will -- and especially if they do so overtly, this will add fuel to the fire and no doubt create great troubles in a transition of leadership among the Palestinians.

BROWN: Just a quick answer on this one, if you can. I'm going to try to get a couple more in. Why would it be in the Syrians' interest right now? The Syrians have a lot of things going on. They have got 130,000 Americans troops just across the border in Iraq. They are trying to play a pretty delicate game there.

Why is it -- why might it be in the Syrian government's interest to foment more problems in the Middle East, or on the West Bank, or Gaza, than already exists?

COHEN: The Syrians would not be happy with the renewal of a bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiation, in which they would be the odd man out. They are not going to be happy with the renewal of the process which made them the odd man out.

BROWN: What sort of role is it that -- this is fascinating to me. What sort of role -- the Syrians, people will recall, are still are hugely important players in Lebanon, or at least in parts of Lebanon. They have a young and somewhat untested president. What is the role the Syrians see for themselves in the region now?

COHEN: The Syrians would like to use this opportunity in order to put the Syrian-Israeli peace process, especially the return of the Golan Heights to Syria, at the center of Middle East peace efforts. And that is unlikely to be the case while the United States and Israel are focused on whether or not there can be a Palestinian leadership that can start up a negotiation with Israel.

BROWN: And just stay with me for a second. What viewers are seeing now again is the street outside the compound in Ramallah. You see some security forces there. You see a lot of reporters there. To our eye, what you don't see are a lot of just people, just folks on the street. This is a kind of an official moment, and it is still, it is coming up on 7:00 in the morning in Ramallah.

So you have seen that. You have also been seeing various Palestinian leaders go across the screen. Some of them I think in this moment, more relevant than others, but it's a little bit hard to know actually how it is all going to shake out.

On the Israeli side, Stephen, obviously there was great contempt in the Sharon government and across -- I mean, to many -- to a great degree it was a unifying factor among all parties in Israel -- great contempt for Mr. Arafat. He was a convenient villain. He earned it in many respects. And he is also gone. So how do the stakes change on the Israeli side?

COHEN: Well, the question is now, whether the Sharon plan, about to withdraw -- the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, which was as it was called, unilateral, that is not negotiated with the Palestinians, will now have to be revised by negotiation with the Palestinians. Sharon had an excuse, backed up by President Bush over these last years, that the Israelis did not have a partner for negotiation. And that was very much based on the condemnation of Arafat for his behavior in Camp David and after Camp David, by Prime Minister Ehud Barak of Israel, the predecessor to Sharon, Sharon himself and President Bush.

Now, with the absence of Arafat, and with his replacement by a successful -- success -- successive leadership, there is a chance now that the argument will be made by many in the world community, and in Israel itself that there now is a Palestinian partner for negotiation.

And the question is whether Israel will choose to deal with that partner. At the moment, the United States is likely to support the notion that the first order of business on the Palestinian side is to get their act together, and to make sure that this leadership is solid enough to be able to move in a more representative, non-corrupt, and even democratic direction.

And that for Israel, the first priority is to continue with the process of the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza.

But many are going to argue that the logic of that move does not any longer stand, because now there will be a Palestinian leadership which can be discussed with, and which can take responsibility through negotiation with Israel about the future of Gaza, and about the future of the Palestinian armed struggle.

We will see whether that happens quickly, or in a longer period of time. My own guess is that it's going to take quite some time before the United States and Israel get themselves their new thoughts around this new situation enough to begin to address a serious negotiation possibility.

BROWN: All right, Stephen, this is -- I mean, you have literally, I mean you have been dealing with all sides in this, both sides in this for much of your professional life. This is one of those moments where the ground has shifted extraordinarily. And we will just as I am sure you will, watch as it all plays out.

These are great tests of, in many respects, untested institutions. And we'll just see what happens. It's always good to talk to you. Thank you. Stephen Cohen, who to our mind is one of the more balanced people in his understanding of this incredibly complicated and tortured region of the world, with us.

Hasan Rahman is the PLO representative to the United Nations. And he joins us now. And I am not sure if we have him on television or if we have him on the phone, but in any case we welcome him.

An official reaction first, and then we'll go from there, sir. Our condolences, of course.

HASAN ABDEL RAHMAN, CHIEF PALESTINIAN REPRESENTATIVE TO THE U.N.: Hello.

BROWN: Obviously, this is not an unexpected moment. That does not make it any less sad for you. As you view this moment, Mr. Arafat's passing, how do you see it? How has the world -- your world, the world of the Palestinian movement, how has it changed because President Arafat has passed away?

RAHMAN: Well, Yasser Arafat was the leader of the Palestinian people for over 40 years. He is not like any other leader. He is larger than life for them. He is the embodiment of the modern Palestinian national movement. He is the father of Palestinian nationalism for many Palestinians. Many generations of Palestinians knew Yasser Arafat as the only leader that they had over the years.

His passing away is really sad, as it is. Hence he -- an era in the history of the Palestinian people. But there will also be a continuity. This continuity is represented in the institutions of the Palestinian Authority and the PLO. And I hope that the transition -- and not only hope, but I expect to be smooth and civilized and with as less noise as possible.

BROWN: Let me ask you a couple of questions, sir, if I may, about that. Would you agree that the institution of the Palestinian Authority is about to experience the most severe and in many ways unpredictable test it has ever experience?

RAHMAN: That's true, but I believe that if we judge those institutions on the basis of the way they functioned and operated in the last two weeks, one has to be optimistic, because they really carried on the functions in a very responsible, a very conscious way. That represents the essence of responsibility by those individuals who compose those institutions.

BROWN: Well, there's an opportunity -- just a final question. I think that much of the world will -- and I think you have suggested this too -- that there is in this moment, for the sorrow that the Palestinians feel, also an opportunity for all of the players who care about peace in the Middle East, for people in Israel, for people in the occupied territories, for people in the Arab world, people in Europe, all over, there is here now an opportunity to take a step toward a more peaceful time. Does your heart believe that that will in fact happen, or will we just see more of what we've seen for 50 years?

RAHMAN: I agree with you. I believe that there is an opportunity. I'm sure that from the conversations I had with the leaders of the Palestinian Authority and the PLO in the last few days, they are ready. I hope that our partners in this process, the Israelis, will reciprocate, and that the United States would lead in trying to bring the two parties together. I think that the international community is ready also to support this effort.

I hope that this will represent an opportunity for all of us to extend our hands to each other and act in a responsible manner for the sake of peace, for our children, and the future generations of Palestinians and Israelis.

BROWN: I couldn't agree more. Thank you, sir, very much. Again, our condolences. We don't -- you know, there is an old American expression, opportunity does -- what is it, opportunity doesn't knock twice, or something like that. This is one of those opportunities, and we'll see if all of the players in this moment are able to seize the opportunity.

A couple of formal statements have come in, and let me pass those along before we switch over to coverage by CNN International. The secretary-general of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, a statement issued by his office. "The secretary-general was deeply moved to learn of the death of President Yasser Arafat. President Arafat was one of the few leaders who could instantly be recognized by people in any walk of life all around the world. For nearly four decades, he expressed and symbolized in his person the national inspirations of the Palestinian people. President Arafat will always be remembered for having in 1988 led the Palestinians to accept the principle of peaceful co-existence between Israel and the future Palestinian state by signing the Oslo Accords in '93. He took a giant step toward the realization of that vision." A statement by the secretary-general of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, tonight.

And a statement issued by the office of president -- former President Bill Clinton. "I offer my condolences to Yasser Arafat's family, his partners in the PLO and the Palestinian people who are grieving the passing of the man who symbolized their hopes and aspirations for so long." Mr. Clinton goes on to say, "History will record Yasser Arafat's greatest moment occurred on the 13th of September, 1993, when he and Israel's Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, now both men dead, shook hands on the White House lawn and signed the Oslo Accords, which led to seven years of negotiation, progress and relative peace.

However, others viewed him," Mr. Clinton goes on, "The Palestinians saw him as the father of their nation. I regret," says Mr. Clinton, "that in 2000, he missed the opportunity to bring that nation into being, and pray for the day when the dreams of the Palestinian people for a state and for a better life will be realized into just and lasting peace."

That was the statement from former President Bill Clinton, who literally almost to the last day in office worked to try and make a deal. There are many people who will tell you that the deal was there to be taken. It was on the table. And in maybe the most important moment of Yasser Arafat's life, and some will say his biggest failure, was that he did not in that moment have the courage to stand up and close that deal.

It is interesting that in this moment Mr. Clinton mentions that as well.

Yasser Arafat has died. He died at 3:30 in the morning Paris time, and now we will watch as events around the world, at the White House, in the Middle East, Jerusalem, Ramallah, Cairo, Amman and the rest, play out. CNN's continuing coverage of this and other matters continues now on CNN International. Good night.

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