Round Two to Arafat

by Mouin Rabbani | published November 6, 2013 - 8:48pm

The release of the Swiss Institut de Radiophysique’s Experts Forensic Report Concerning the Late President Yasser Arafat has lent further credence to the proposition that the iconic Palestinian leader’s 2004 demise was an act of Sharon rather than of God or nature. Speaking to the Guardian, forensic scientist David Barclay concluded the report provides

[A] smoking gun.… I don’t think there’s any doubt at all.… The report provides strong evidence, in my view conclusive evidence, that there’s at least 18 times the level of polonium in Arafat’s exhumed body as there should be.

The above notwithstanding, the report will have only minimal impact on Palestinian perceptions of Arafat’s death. The overwhelming majority has long since concluded that he was forcibly removed from the scene to inaugurate better days for Israel.

But the document’s political repercussions could yet be significant, particularly if there are further developments and Arafat remains in the headlines for an extended period of time.

Simply put, these latest revelations could not have come at a worse time for Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud ‘Abbas, currently engaged once again in bilateral negotiations with Israel under American supervision. The prospects for a new Israeli-Palestinian agreement in 2014 are real and growing, and greater today than at any time since Arafat refused to capitulate to Israel and the United States during the 2000 Camp David summit and thereby set the stage for the ensuing Palestinian uprising. More to the point, such an agreement would entail ‘Abbas signing off on many of the conditions Arafat refused to accept, in no small part because Arafat recognized that those arrangements fell considerably short of the absolute minimum his people were prepared to ingest.

For many of those who did not need to wait until the publication of a Swiss report almost a decade after the fact to conclude Israel is responsible for Arafat’s fate, the story has never been as simple as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon settling the ultimate score with his Palestinian nemesis. Rather, it is considered part of a broader strategy in which Arafat’s succession must have been as well thought out as his removal. Why would Israel go so far as to kill Arafat and thereby pave the way for his replacement by ‘Abbas? Might the progress of the current negotiations provide a clue or two? Hasn’t Abu Mazen’s exemplary commitment to Oslo over the years, and maintenance of security cooperation with Israel through thick and thin, already settled this question?

Additionally, renewed discussion of Arafat’s final days almost inevitably drags in its wake talk of the relationship between him and ‘Abbas during that period. To put it bluntly, they detested each other. Arafat denounced ‘Abbas as a “Palestinian Karzai” who allowed himself to be used by Sharon and George W. Bush to weaken the Palestinian leader. ‘Abbas has never forgiven Arafat for engineering the collapse of his short-lived premiership -- even though the post of Palestinian Authority prime minister had been created at the Quartet’s behest as a vehicle for transferring some of Arafat’s key powers to ‘Abbas. Those who reminisce about such episodes no doubt also recall that ‘Abbas was then the champion of Palestinian reform and institutions, but has since assuming the chair of the PLO Executive Committee, presidency of the PA and State of Palestine, and chair of the Fatah movement governed more autocratically than even Yasser Arafat -- and unlike the latter never appointed a deputy.

Finally, it is widely assumed that while of Israeli provenance the fatal toxin must have been administered by Palestinian hands. This possibility raises uncomfortable questions about the studied reluctance with which the Palestinian leadership has handled the Arafat death file. New evidence that he was killed therefore raises additional questions about why the Palestinian accomplice has yet to be caught or identified, and more broadly about why the leadership has not energetically pursued criminal proceedings against Israel.

The latest and potential further revelations about the circumstances of Arafat’s death are not going to derail the current negotiations or prevent an eventual agreement from being reached. But if an agreement is indeed concluded in 2014, and there is considerable opposition to the implementation of its terms, Arafat may once again emerge as the symbol of Palestinian rights, and help spur efforts to prevent the question of Palestine from being resolved on the basis of a West Bank statelet with circumscribed powers incompatible with any definition of sovereignty. Given that ‘Abbas’ role in Oslo has been highly exaggerated in the sense that only Arafat had the stature to make it happen, that outcome would be ironic indeed.