“My first reaction is: God bless his soul,” answered George W. Bush when asked to comment on the news that Yasir Arafat had “passed away.” The obituary was premature–the Palestinian leader was in a coma, and died the following week. It is unclear whether Arafat’s death will bring his people and the region closer to Bush’s wish, “a free Palestinian state that’s at peace with Israel.”

Palestinians in the occupied territories have met their leader’s sudden mortality with stoicism. There were no mass vigils outside his battle-scarred headquarters in Ramallah in the days leading up to his death, no mass displays of grief the day after. Most people are getting on with the routine of their lives–or what passes for routine in the garrison realities of the West Bank and Gaza. But there is fear over what will come after him.

Mechanisms for a peaceful transition are theoretically in place. The current speaker of the Palestinian Parliament, Rawhi Fattouh, is supposed to become president of the Palestinian Authority until new elections are held (within sixty days, according to the law), with the most likely candidate being the present Prime Minister, Ahmed Qurei (a k a Abu Ala). Chairmanship of the Palestine Liberation Organization will probably pass to its current general secretary and the former prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen). In practice, too, the two men had already taken up the reins of power, with Abbas stepping in for Arafat in the PLO bodies and Qurei in the PA. The bigger question is whether a leadership with these two at the helm can govern in a post-Arafat era.

For now the answer is yes, says Palestinian labor minister and analyst Ghassan Khatib. Abbas and Qurei are “accepted by everyone or at least could be accepted by everyone.” But, he adds, their true mettle will be tested when and if they attempt to make strategic decisions over reform, the intifada and the peace process. On reform they will likely face obstruction from the “old guard” Fatah leadership, particularly the heads of the unpopular PA security forces, who rightly see the end of the Arafat era as a prelude to their own, and would resist any diminution of their power. In the worst case this could mean the collapse of the security forces into de facto militias, grouped around locale, patronage and this or that security warlord. The disintegration, marked by occasional kidnappings and armed confrontations, is already evident. In Gaza, forces loyal to the former PA security minister, Muhammad Dahlan, routinely clash with the PA’s national security forces, headed by Arafat’s nephew, Musa.

Another challenge could come from militias like the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades. Some of these have already formed tactical alliances with security-force warlords like Dahlan or with outside powers, like the Lebanese resistance movement Hezbollah. On November 1 a Palestinian suicide bomber killed three Israelis in Tel Aviv. Claiming responsibility, a militia linked to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine warned “Palestinian elements” (Abbas and Qurei) not to end the “armed intifada.” Nor is it clear what stance the Islamists of Hamas and Islamic Jihad will take to the new order. They’ve urged a united Palestinian leadership made up of all the factions, to be followed by new elections–a demand viewed as the height of responsibility by some, the height of opportunism by others.

The desire for unity through new local, parliamentary and presidential elections is nonetheless a sentiment shared by the vast majority of Palestinians as well as most of Palestine’s secular political and civic organizations, says Mustafa Barghouthi, whose National Democratic Initiative has championed democratic reform as the only way to resolve the crisis of Palestinian leadership. “I think we are at a crossroads,” says Barghouthi. “Israel and the United States can try to impose a leadership on us, or it can deal with us as an authentic national movement with an elected leadership. All I can tell you is that the first way won’t work.”

It is almost certain that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon won’t take the second path. For most Palestinians, the main purpose of his separation plan–including his plan to “disengage” soldiers and settlers from most of Gaza as well as the imposition of new “defensible borders” through the establishment of the West Bank wall–is to prevent the re-emergence of any national Palestinian authority, let alone an elected one. For the past year Bush has supported him in these unilateralist designs. But in his last Administration there were some who would have preferred the disengagement plan to have been negotiated with the PA, if only to prevent the specter of a Hamas takeover in Gaza, where the Islamist movement is especially strong. Would an Abbas and Qurei leadership change Bush’s unilateralist preference?

It should, say Palestinian analysts, if the United States is interested in strengthening what remains of the moderate wing of Palestinian nationalism. First, a “coordinated” withdrawal from Gaza would give weight to what is likely to be Abbas and Qurei’s initial policy initiative: a reciprocal cease-fire in which the Palestinians hold their fire for the duration of the Gaza pullout in return for Israel ending its policies of incursions and assassinations. Second, a cease-fire in Gaza–combined with Israeli pull-back from the reconquered West Bank cities–would enable elections to take place, a condition many see as indispensable if Abbas and Qurei are to consolidate popular legitimacy in the teeth of their opponents in Fatah and the other Palestinian factions. “Elections are the only way a smooth transition will happen. Even Arafat had to be elected when he returned to Palestine [after the Oslo Accords]. Abbas and Qurei will not be able to lead without them,” says analyst Mamdour Nofal. He also knows that elections have little to do with Arafat’s passing. They have much more to do with what Sharon does in the occupied territories and what Bush decides–as opposed to wishes–in Washington.