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Arafat aides meet to ease fears of possible upheaval

Palestinian head undergoes tests in France

JERUSALEM -- Flanking a chair left empty by the emergency medical evacuation of Yasser Arafat, Palestinian officials convened a leadership meeting yesterday to try to allay fears of a power vacuum caused by their president's absence.

It was the first time in 35 years that Arafat had not presided over a meeting of the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization, which serves as the senior decision-making body for Palestinians.

These facts alone underlined the void left by the decline of Arafat, whose incapacitation foretells an upheaval in Palestinian politics and vast uncertainty for neighboring Israelis. A Jordanian military helicopter on Friday evacuated Arafat from his battered compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah and rushed him to a hospital in Clamart, near Paris.

At the Percy Army Teaching Hospital yesterday Arafat underwent a second day of medical tests, including a scan for leukemia, one of several cancers that his symptoms suggest.

Leila Shahid, the top Palestinian official in France, said doctors have not determined what is ailing Arafat, but that results of initial tests did not show him to have leukemia. ''The doctors excluded for the time being any possibility of leukemia," Shahid said in a brief statement at the hospital. ''There are many other possibilities."

Doctors say it takes several days to produce the results of a bone marrow biopsy for leukemia.

When Arafat departed Ramallah, leaving the West Bank for the first time in nearly three years, he was suffering from an intestinal disorder and a low platelet count that prevents blood from clotting. He was said to be disoriented, weak, and unable to recognize lifelong colleagues and at one point has lost consciousness, according to people who were with him. Doctors said the low platelet count could indicate cancer and other life-threatening illnesses.

Shahid said French doctors would make a public statement on the Palestinian leader's health when tests and scans are completed in coming days.

''We have nothing to hide," she said, adding that Arafat had ''a very good night's sleep and woke up in a good mood" asking to speak to his daughter, Zahwa, who is in Tunisia. ''He's physically and psychologically better."

In the West Bank, meanwhile, Palestinian officials were keen to broadcast an image that everything was ''business as usual," although it certainly was not, and that Palestinian institutions, as weak as they are, continue to function. The Palestinian Legislative Council, the leadership of Arafat's Fatah faction and a council that oversees all police forces will be convened today, and senior Palestinian officials plan to brief diplomats tomorrow.

''President Arafat wants us to continue normally, particularly in these difficult circumstances," Mahmoud Abbas, Arafat's number two inside the PLO executive committee, said after the meeting.

Abbas has taken over running the PLO, and Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei is managing the Palestinian Authority, both at Arafat's request, officials said. While the Palestinian Authority is the recognized governing agency for the Palestinian territories, the PLO eclipses it in real power.

Abbas, better known as Abu Mazen, urged the Palestinian public and myriad factions ''to unite and work together so that there will be no pretext that may be used to harm the Palestinian people."

He read from a statement and would not take questions.

At the meeting, held in the same sandbagged headquarters that Arafat departed the day before, Abbas and others symbolically left the chair at the head of the table -- Arafat's chair -- empty. Abbas, as secretary general of the committee, presided.

Palestinian officials are reluctant to make overt plays for power while Arafat is alive and are taking pains to seem respectful.

The inevitable post-Arafat period is, for many people on all sides of the Middle East conflict, too scary and unpredictable to ponder. A period of violence and political chaos within Palestinian territories seems likely.

By law, if Arafat dies, the speaker of the Palestinian Parliament would take over until elections could be held.

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