Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Yasser Arafat Part III



3rd part of 3

Arafat's Revolving Door

Under pressure from the United States, Arafat did periodically take steps against the violence, condemning attacks and arresting low-level terrorists. The problem was that his condemnations were typically in English and couched in equivocations that accused Israel of terrorism as well. In Arabic, he would call for a jihad against Israel and a million martyrs to liberate Jerusalem. The men he arrested were also released after a few weeks or months, and many subsequently committed acts of terror. Israel's view was that Arafat either could stop the violence and chose not to, or had no control over militant Palestinians. In either case, they said it made no sense to negotiate with him since the result was the same — violence.

Sharon's view that Arafat directed the terror was given greater credence in early January 2002, when Israeli forces stopped a ship, the Karine-A, bound for the Palestinian Authority carrying 50 tons of weapons from Iran that were paid for by one of Arafat's top aides. The shipment also marked a turning point in Arafat's relations with President Bush, who demanded an explanation for the arms shipment. U.S. intelligence confirmed Israel's information that Arafat was behind the smuggling operation, so when Arafat denied any involvement, the President knew he was being lied to, and subsequently would not trust Arafat.

Following a new wave of terror, Israeli tanks rolled into the major cities of the West Bank on March 28, 2002, surrounding them and imposing curfews in what was called "Operation Defensive Shield." Sharon also went beyond his earlier castigation of Arafat as irrelevant and labeled him an enemy of Israel and surrounded his compound with tanks.

The fact that no Arab state came to the Palestinians' rescue, as Arafat had expected, showed how thin the support for the Palestinians really was in Arab capitals. Although he once again emerged as a survivor, avoiding deportation, which Sharon favored, and assassination, which the Palestinians feared, Arafat's prestige was also severely damaged.

Israel kept Arafat isolated in his Ramallah headquarters for the next two years. During that time, Arafat continued to rule the PA, and to receive a steady stream of foreign visitors, but he lost his position on the world stage and was rarely seen or heard from.


Reshuffling the Palestinian Deck

The decline in Arafat's popularity was reinforced by Israel's refusal to negotiate with him and the United States' insistence that the Palestinian Authority institute reforms. In response, Arafat reshuffled his cabinet and promised to hold new elections. Arafat's actions were still being viewed both by Palestinians and others as suspect because the cabinet changes did not reflect any meaningful shift in power.

On June 24, 2002, Bush laid out a plan that called on the Palestinians to replace Arafat as their leader, reform the governmental institutions of the Palestinian Authority, end terrorism, and adopt democratic and free-market principles. The President agreed with the Israeli view that Arafat had to be replaced, and that terrorism had to end, before they were required to act.

The Palestinians were angry and felt betrayed. They did not believe the United States had the right to tell them who their leader should be, and continued to insist that Israel had to withdraw from all the territories before they would end their violent struggle.

Despite the Palestinians' response, the Bush plan stimulated changes in the Palestinian Authority. Desperate to hold onto power, Arafat offered a reform plan and a timetable for new elections. Palestinians who had been cowed into silence by Arafat's unquestioned authority for the first time began to speak out about the Palestinian Authority's corruption and the need for changes.

Under international pressure, Arafat subsequently appointed Mahmud Abbas (Abu Mazen) to be the Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority. The United States had hoped Abbas would become the authority of the PA and Arafat would be reduced to a figurehead. Arafat saw things just the reverse and maintained authority over all the main levers of power, in particular the security services. In frustration, Abbas resigned and was replaced by Ahmed Korei (Abu Alaa), who had no more success than Abbas in wresting control of the PA from Arafat.


Arafat's Source of Power

In addition to being a symbol of the Palestinian national movement, Arafat also derived much of his influence by controlling a vast financial empire first established by the PLO through its criminal activities and later augmented by hundreds of millions of dollars siphoned from donations by the international community to the Palestinian Authority. Rather than use these resources to live the kind of luxurious lifestyle typified by other Arab despots, Arafat has used his money primarily to buy loyalty.

In 2003, a team of American accountants hired by the PA finance ministry began examining Arafat's finances. The team determined that part of the Palestinian leader's wealth was in a secret portfolio worth close to $1 billion — with investments in companies like a Coca-Cola bottling plant in Ramallah, a Tunisian cell phone company and venture capital funds in the U.S. and the Cayman Islands. The head of the investigation stated that "although the money for the portfolio came from public funds like Palestinian taxes, virtually none of it was used for the Palestinian people; it was all controlled by Arafat. And none of these dealings were made public."

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) conducted an audit of the Palestinian Authority and discovered that Arafat diverted $900 million in public funds to a special bank account controlled by Arafat and the PA Chief Economic Financial Advisor. It was, therefore, not surprising when Forbes ranked Arafat sixth on its 2003 list of "Kings, Queens and Despots," estimating his personal wealth at a minimum of $300 million.

Arafat's wife Suha reportedly receives a stipend of $100,000 each month from the PA budget. In October 2003, the French government opened a money-laundering probe of Suha after prosecutors learned about regular transfers of nearly $1.27 million from Switzerland to Mrs. Arafat's accounts in Paris.


Arafat's Final Days

In 1990, Arafat, a Sunni Muslim, married Suha Tawil, a Palestinian Greek Orthodox Christian who converted to Islam before marrying him. At the time, Arafat was 62 and Suha 28. Suha's mother, a Palestinian activist and writer, introducedArafat

 to her daughter, who was then studying at the Sorbonne. Arafat subsequently hired Suha to work on his personal staff in Tunis. In July 1995, the couple had a daughter Zawha, named after Arafat's deceased mother. After the start of the second uprising, Suha moved to live with her mother and daughter in Paris.

Arafat survived several assassination attempts over the years, as well as a plane crash in a sandstorm in the Libyan desert on April 7, 1992. For the last several years of his life he was in failing health and rumored to have Parkinson's Disease. His conditioned worsened in October 2004. Israel agreed to allow him to be transferred to a hospital in Paris on October 29 where his wife stayed by his side. He died November 11, 2004, at age 75.

The cause of death was never announced, and remains a mystery. Conspiratorial suggestions that Israel was somehow involved were quickly rejected by Palestinian authorities. Rumors have circulated for decades that Arafat was gay, and much of the speculation about his death, and the associated secrecy of the circumstances, have led to suggestions that he may have died of AIDS.

After his death, Arafat's body was flown from Paris to Cairo, where a ceremony was held in his honor attended by numerous foreign dignitaries. Arafat's remains were then flown to Ramallah where he was interred in a grave near his headquarters. The Palestinians had wanted to bury Arafat in Jerusalem, but the Israelis objected. In the short-run, the Palestinians plan to make Arafat's grave a shrine, but they have expressed the intention of moving his body to Jerusalem after achieving independence and establishing a capital in some part of the holy city.

For nearly half a century Arafat was the symbol of Palestinian nationalism. Though he was not a military man, he was rarely seen out of his uniform in an effort to project strength and his commitment to armed struggle. He wore his kaffiyeh in a unique fashion, draped over his shoulder in the shape of Palestine, that is, all of historic Palestine, including Israel. The high-profile terrorist attacks he directed helped gain international attention and sympathy for the Palestinian cause, but, ultimately, his unwillingness to make the psychological leap from terrorist mastermind to statesman prevented him from achieving independence for the Palestinian people, and brought them decades of suffering that could have been avoided had he abandoned his revolutionary zeal for liberating Palestine and agreed to live in peace with Israel.



Mitchell G. Bard, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Middle East Conflict. 3rd Edition. NY: Alpha Books, 2005
Said Aburish, Arafat: From Defender to Dictator, Bloomsbury Publishing, 1998, p. 8
The Terrorism Research Center
"Arafat's Billions," 60 Minutes
Washington Post, (November 9 & 11, 2004)

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