Poster commemorating the death of Yasser Arafat in Damascus, from Flickr user Magh
While I was away last week, the biggest event of the Arab world appears to have been Farouq Qaddumi's allegation that Ariel Sharon, Muhammad Dahlan, Mahmoud Abbas and someone unnamed Americans may have conspired and agreed to poison Yasser Arafat. Qaddumi made his statement while being interviewed on al-Jazeera, prompting the West Bank Palestinian government to shut down their offices for several days — but it's now reopened, although the Fayyad government is still considering taking the channel to court. Arguably al-Jazeera should not be responsible for what its guests say, but at the same time it has been heavily promoting the story.
Marc Lynch covered the incident from the point of view of his speciality, al-Jazeera, and in terms of the West Bank Palestinian government making a typical mistake of the repressive Arab states — I can't say I'm surprised nor do I share Marc's high expectations for Palestinian democracy under Mahmoud Abbas, or indeed, under Israeli occupation. (Or indeed that the United States is a supporter of press freedom, a rather ironic statement to make in context of previous US policy towards al-Jazeera.) Michael Collins Dunn also focused on al-Jazeera's standing in the region and whether or not its ban increased the credibility of Qaddumi's claim, while As'ad AbuKhalil gave background on al-Jazeera's relations with the Abbas regime and Qaddumi's place within Fatah. Likewise Brian Whitaker also wrote about Arab "leaders who can't adjust to a new era of transparency in which their actions are liable to be scrutinised and questioned as never before."
I am not sure this should be the focus of the story — al-Jazeera is a power of its own in the region (more or less influenced by the Qatari royal family) but I see it more as an additional bloc in the pan-Arab spectrum, shifting alliances regularly, rather than the "game-changer" it is generally described as. Before al-Jazeera, after all, there were other sources of information (many of them outside the Arab world, such as the BBC World Service or Radio Montecarlo) which fed into Arab political debate. Today's multiplication of information sources has still not made much of a dent in the transparency of governments or their willingness to disseminate information. Indeed, in some cases it has helped neutralize potential "bombshells" such as the one released by Qaddumi.
Marc Lynch was spot on in saying that this particular bombshell should be read in the context of the upcoming (but still uncertain) Fatah conference, the first to take place in 20 years. I don't know enough about Palestinian politics to comment on this in detail, but I think it's pretty obvious that Fatah is in deep crisis, and that Abbas has lost much moral authority over the Palestinian people. Several months ago, I spoke to senior Fatah officials who were in Cairo for the reconciliation talks and it seemed clear that the Fatah conference would not be taking place — that Abbas was going through the motions, and that he had reportedly even asked Egypt to refuse to host it so he could at least claimed that he had asked. Hosting the conference inside of occupied Palestine is problematic, of course, since Fatah members outside the West Bank would most likely not be able to attend. Actually having a Fatah conference would provide a venue for many of the group's members to air their grievances in a legitimate way the current leadership might not be too happy with. The last few months, after all, have seen test balloons by various Fatah factions as to what direction the movement should take, while the US, EU and Israel all but consecrated Abbas as the sole person they want conducting final status talks should a peace process properly restart.
That — Fatah politics — is one issue. The other is the seriousness of Qaddumi's accusation that senior Fatah members (Abbas and Dahlan) conspired with Israel and the US to eliminate Arafat.
Let's remember that Arafat has been alleged to have died by poisoning, from a brain tumor, from AIDS, cirrhosis of the liver and other causes. We still don't know. His widow, Suha Arafat, refused that his body undergo an autopsy in Paris or that French authorities release his medical file. The French government denied the poison theory, but rather weakly. His personal physician, Ashraf al-Kurdi, alleged that while Arafat was HIV positive it was poison that killed him. His nephew, who had access to medical records, says there were unclear, although it has been confirmed he had a blood-clotting disorder called "disseminated intravascular coagulation" (DIC).
I had noted Qaddumi's first allegation that Arafat was poisoned, back in November 2004, and dismissed him since he did not really back it up and it was one in a chorus of voices offering different explanations. Then, in 2007, the Israeli peacenik Uri Avnery drew attention to the fact that Uri Dan, a longtime Ariel Sharon advisor, had mentioned that Sharon had asked the Bush administration for a go-ahead to kill Arafat.
That decision would have presumably been taken in 2003, when Arafat was under tremendous pressure from the US and had been forced to name Abbas as his PM as a form of power-sharing. (It didn't last long and Abbas resigned after Arafat ensured security services were still loyal to him.) Around that time is when the meeting between Sharon, Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, Abbas, Dahlan and an unnamed American delegation (possibly headed by William Burns). Since Qaddumi has now released the transcript — exclusively translated into English by Toufiq Haddad of the Faster Times — we now have an idea of what might have taken place. The whole conversation is worth reading (the meeting is essentially about how to get around Arafat, "liquidate" leaders of the Second Intifada in Fatah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad and impose a new Palestinian leadership under Abbas and Dahlan). But here's the bit where Sharon suggests poisoning Arafat:
Sharon: As long as Arafat is around in the Moqata’ [the Palestinian Authority headquarters] in Ramallah, you will certainly fail. This fox [Arafat] will surprise you as he did in the past. Because he knows what you intend to do. And he will work towards your failure and put inevitable obstacles. He’ll proclaim, as the [Palestinian] street does, that you are being used to do the dirty work of the era.
Dahlan: We’ll see who uses the other.
Sharon: The first step needs to be to kill Arafat by poisoning. I don’t want him exiled, except if there are guarantees from the concerned states that he will be under house arrest. Otherwise Arafat will return to living on a plane [a reference to Arafat's frequent travels before his return to the OPT to drum up support for the Palestinian position internationally.]
Abu Mazen: If Arafat dies before we are able to have control on the ground and all the institutions, and over Fateh, and [Fateh's armed wing] the Al Aqsa Martyr Brigades, then we will face great complications.
Sharon: On the contrary, you won’t control anything as long as Arafat is alive.
Abu Mazen: The plan needs to be where we pass everything through Arafat. This will be more successful for us and for you. During the period of clashing with Palestinian organizations and the assassination of its leadership and its member - these matters will bring with them consequences for Arafat himself. And he can’t say to the people that this is the work of Abu Mazen. But it is the work of the head of the PA. For I know Arafat well. He doesn’t accept to be on the margins. He needs to be the leader, even if he has lost all his options, and when he has no option but civil war. He prefers to be the leader.
Sharon: You used to say before Camp David that Arafat is the last to know and [then] Barak, Clinton and Tenet were surprised that he is the decider [i.e that Arafat feigned ignorance, but knew what was going on all along, engineering it as such.] Perhaps you do not learn from the past.
Do read the whole thing, but as you can see here Abu Mazen (Abbas) is actually arguing with Sharon over the need to kill Arafat. So it's pretty inconclusive, although if the document is taken at face value it does show Israeli willingness to kill Arafat. This is hardly surprising since so many Palestinian leaders have been assassinated and during that time Sharon was convinced that Arafat was behind the suicide bombings and other killings of Israelis. What is revealing about the exchange (again, assuming this meeting did take place) is the degree to which Abbas and Dahlan are seen to be cooperating with Sharon to isolate Arafat, protect Israeli interests and assume control over the Palestinian Authority. This, without the assassination, should be damning enough. It seems Yasser Arafat will be haunting this gang for a while yet, especially should a Fatah conference actually come through.