An Al Jazeera documentary and a statement from Yasir Arafat’s widow has led to a decision by the Palestinian Authority to exhume the former leader of the PA and to conduct an investigation into the cause of his death in 2004. While Palestinians have often spoken of Arafat’s demise being the result of an alleged Israeli plot, were such a probe to be honest, the Jewish state would probably have nothing to fear. More to the point, any discussion of Arafat’s death will necessarily involve highlighting what he did before he expired in Lausanne, Switzerland. And that is not something the Palestinians or their apologists ought to welcome.
Arafat’s death at the age of 75 was something of a mystery and predictably fueled conspiracy theories. Suspicion that foul play was involved will only be heightened if Al Jazeera’s allegation is accurate that his clothes contained trace amounts of polonium, a radioactive substance generally associated with assassinations carried out by agents of the former Soviet Union and the current Putin regime in Russia. That helps to remind us that of all the players in the Middle East drama at the time of his demise, Israel was probably the only one that had an interest in keeping him alive rather than putting an end to his pathetic misrule of the territories. Hamas, his Fatah underlings as well as the host of enemies Arafat made during his career as the world’s number one terrorist, are all far more likely suspects than Israel. However, if Arafat is to be dug up, the focus on the mystery of his death ought to also revive some interest in his criminal career that provides an appropriate context to his ignominious death.
It bears remembering that at the time he fell ill in his besieged compound in Ramallah, Israel had good reason to keep the old terrorist safe and sound. So long as Arafat was the face of Palestinian nationalism, his bloodthirsty reputation guaranteed the Jewish state a degree of sympathy that it lost once he was replaced by the more presentable Mahmoud Abbas, though the latter was no less obdurate in his refusal to make peace than his predecessor.
Arafat more or less invented modern international terrorism in the 1970s. But even after supposedly embracing peace with his historic handshake with Yitzhak Rabin on the White House Lawn in September 1993, Arafat had continued to promote and subsidize terror attacks against Israelis, Jews and Americans. When then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered him an independent state in almost all of the West Bank, Gaza and a share of Jerusalem at Camp David in 2000 and Taba in 2001, he turned the offers down flat. His answer to these peace initiatives was a terrorist war of attrition, the so-called second intifada that cost the lives of more than 1,000 Israelis and far more Palestinians.
In the aftermath of that debacle, Arafat was isolated and humiliated, living in the ruins of his compound in Ramallah after Israeli forces complied with American requests to spare the Palestinian leader. At this stage, he was unlikely to be able to do Israel any more harm, but both Hamas and his Fatah underlings had good reason to want him gone.
Hamas knew that without Arafat, their campaign to oust Fatah from Gaza and launch a long march to Palestinian power could never begin. Though Arafat ruled Fatah and the territories with an iron hand and the help of 17 separate and competing intelligence agencies, the mainstream Palestinian party and its terrorist thugs understood that recovery from the intifada required the imperious and corrupt Arafat to exit the stage. The bottom line is that a lot of people wanted Arafat dead. But Israel was the only party that had a vested interest in keeping him alive.
The puzzle of his death has so many pieces it is unlikely we will ever get to the bottom of the story, especially because Palestinian politics will require that Israel be branded as the guilty party even if all the evidence points in a different direction. The role of Suha Arafat, his much younger widow who has continued to live like a queen in Paris in the years since these events, is also complicated because, as Ha’aretz notes, she refused his doctors her permission for them to conduct a liver biopsy as he lay on his deathbed.
But no matter who was responsible for his death, there should be no doubt that the man who died in France November 2004 was responsible for the slaughter of countless thousands, the introduction of new and fiendish methods of terrorism and for preventing any hope of peace between the Palestinians and Israel. The Palestinians would do better to examine their own failed and distorted political culture that makes peace impossible rather than worry about who killed the man who put them in the impossible position in which they still find themselves.