Gerald Warner: Beware fallout from Arafat mystery

JUST when you thought Middle Eastern politics could not possibly become any more confused, a new conspiracy theory has surfaced regarding the death of Yasser Arafat.
Contradictions surround forensic tests on the former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Picture: GettyContradictions surround forensic tests on the former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Picture: Getty
Contradictions surround forensic tests on the former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Picture: Getty

Analysis of his remains by scientists in Lausanne has produced the verdict that one of his ribs contained 18 times the average amount of radioactive polonium-210 and so they are “83 per cent confident” this caused his death and these findings “moderately support” the suggestion he was poisoned.

Anyone who thinks there is a certain lack of congruence between that 83 per cent and moderate support for a poisoning hypothesis has only reached the outer circumference of the web of contradictions, since we were also assured by Lausanne investigators that the “clinical symptoms described in Arafat’s medical reports were not consistent with polonium-210”. For good measure, the head of a Russian team simultaneously investigating Arafat’s death at the request of the Palestinian authorities reported it had found no traces of radioactive polonium, only to have the agency for which he works describe his comments as “unofficial”. A panel of French judges is conducting its own murder investigation but has not yet delivered its opinion.

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So contradictory are all these findings, they have already created a climate of scepticism regarding the sensationalist allegations. Even dedicated conspiracy theorists are wrestling with the conundrum: if polonium-210 has a half-life of 138 days, how is it that precise quantities of it are being discovered in the body of a man who died nine years ago tomorrow? The most discomfited party in this episode is the Israeli government, which recognises that Palestinian public opinion will not hesitate to attribute to it Arafat’s “murder”. The Israelis have accordingly denounced the investigation as “more soap opera than science”.

They can hardly feel aggrieved, however, at being considered prime suspects, since we have the testimony of Ariel Sharon, whom Arafat accused of 13 attempts on his life: “All the governments of Israel for many years, Labour, Likud, all of them, made an effort – and I want to use a subtle word for the American reader – to remove him from our society.” Since Arafat and his merry men of Fatah contrived to provoke civil wars in Jordan and Lebanon, hijack aircraft, murder Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics and generally provoke international mayhem on his violent path to the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994, it is understandable that Israel should have regarded him with something approaching disfavour.

Yet so did many other people. You do not need the deductive powers of Hercule Poirot to realise there are many other suspects in this probably spurious murder case. Syria had not only taken on Fatah militarily in Lebanon in the 1970s, but Hafez al-Assad’s government had sentenced Arafat to death for the murder of Major Yusef Urabi. Jordan had good reason to loathe him. Then there was the multiplicity of Islamist organisations springing up to hijack the Palestinian cause: Arafat was a hangover from the era of leftist-secularist revolutionaries, now displaced by jihadists. Hamas had no love for him. Murkier still were the troubled waters of Palestinian corruption, with Arafat accused of amassing a fortune of $1.3bn by 2002 to sustain his patronage system of “neopatrimonialism”.

Indeed, the Israelis have accused Arafat’s widow Suha of exploiting the murder hypothesis to undermine her husband’s successors. What is supposedly concerning Israel is the danger that Palestinian outrage over Arafat’s death could derail the current peace talks. If those negotiations are not torpedoed by Israel’s move last week to construct more than 3,700 new homes for Jewish settlers, it is improbable that this Agatha Christie-style distraction will terminate them. Last Tuesday’s talks ended in a shouting match, but it is unlikely to have been provoked by the Arafat question.

US Secretary of State John Kerry tried last week to keep negotiations alive, asking if Israel wanted to cause a third Intifada. That is not the issue. Israel has colonised its 1967 conquests and wants the current West Bank separation barrier to become the border of a future Palestinian state. The Palestinians want to restore the pre-1967 boundaries, returning to the status quo before Israel captured Gaza, the West Bank and Arab east Jerusalem. If any Palestinian authority signs up to less than that, a new rejectionist front will repudiate such a settlement and wage war on Israel. In any case, Israel will never make such concessions.

There is no foreseeable end to this confrontation. It could continue for generations. History, too, suggests that the state of Israel will not indefinitely maintain its military, technological and economic hegemony over its neighbours. The prospects are ominous. What will baffle British observers is how so intractable an impasse can have overtaken a region blessed with the wise mediation of Tony Blair.