Riyadh: Tuesday 27th November 2012:
We should be extremely careful in seeking to apply western proverbial wisdom to scenarios which exist outside of our own environment, and I would normally counsel against their trite simplicity in any case, but the exhumation of the remains of the former leader of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), Yasser Arafat, prompts me to suggest that a better course of action would have been to let the man Rest in Peace.
The decision to exhume his remains, 8 years after his death, is prompted by renewed suspicions that his death was the result of assassination in the form of poisoning. According to various sources, traces of radioactive Polonium have been found on his clothing.
You will recall that Polonium suddenly became something of a poison of choice among covert government agencies enjoying a Licence to Kill during the last decade, with the Pro-Western Ukrainian Presidential candidate Victor Yuschenko and the former Russian Spy, turned UK resident and critic of the Putin Regime, Alexander Litvinenko, both subjected to its lethal effects during the first decade of the new millennium.
The timing of Arafat’s death seems on a simple level to confirm suspicions that he could have been finished off in this way, and if corroborated, the suggestions that his clothing is radioactive raise suspicions further.
Yet other aspects of the timing of Arafat’s death in 2004, cast doubt on this scenario.
For one thing, the examples given above were allegedly carried out by agencies of the Russian Federation, while any suspicions of foul play associated with the PLO leader would fall, not on Russia, but on Israel. Israel is widely acknowledged to be a nuclear power but for both The Mossad and FSB to suddenly find themselves in possession of the same opportunity, the same, highly toxic and difficult to procure material and same ability to safely transport and deposit it at the same time and administer it to their enemies, requires us to believe in a certain level of cooperation and motive which borders on the conspiracy theory.
Then there is the status of Arafat’s own political and physical health. It was no secret that he was suffering from ill-health, partly the result of injuries sustained in a helicopter crash a few years earlier. While those supporting the viewpoint that he died of natural causes can be expected to find reasons why he died that preclude assassination there is another inconvenient truth which subverts the narrative of conspiracy theorists somewhat.
In 2004, Arafat, was no longer at the negotiating table. The apparent optimism which had surrounded the Clinton administration’s efforts to broker a peace in the rarefied air of Camp David, had faded and been replaced by a Post 9/11 Bush administration which was essentially hawkish in is support for Israel. It would reiterate its belief in a two state solution to the Palestinian problem, but was not about to lift a finger to help. The failure to find WMD’s, the ongoing search for Bin Laden and the rising insurgency in Iraq were the focus of American attention. No one was listening to Arafat.
In fact not even Palestinians were listening to Arafat. Increasingly the physically estranged Palestinian controlled areas of Gaza and the West Bank, were becoming politically estranged as well, with rival organisations, Hamas and Hezbollah retaining the affections of the different territories.
Increasingly, even at home, old Pan Arabists like Arafat were being seen by their young populations for what they were. Aging men with ropy ideological dreams. Elsewhere in this blog I have written about the decline of the Pan-Arabist Strongmen, Saddam Hussein, Hosni Mubarak, Assad, in Syria and Gaddafi in Libya. Arafat fell into this category also, and his demise was of its time. The current divisions in Palestinian society between Hamas & Hezbollah is reflective of the decline in the Pan-Arabist ideal. Hamas’s connection to the Muslim Brotherhood has been well documented during the peace negotiations brokered over the recent rocket attacks between Gaza and Israel. Central to this similar outlook is a repudiation of the Pan-Arabist ideal of a Middle East wide Caliphate and a recognition of the potential role of the Nation State structure of Government as a means of providing a Stable Islamic State.
These divisions were becoming apparent long before Arafat’s death. It is clear that his own political philosophy was loosing or had lost its power already.
Now, this does not in itself, prove that he was not assassinated, but to a large extent it asks questions of the motive for doing so. If Arafat was increasingly irrelevant, and showing signs of ill-health, why bother to assassinate him? His continued presence provided the Israeli’s with an opponent with which they were comfortable. He was predictable and nonthreatening to them in a way that young radicals are less likely to be. In 2004, Israel was content with the leaders around them. Mubarak and Assad, were predictable and cooperative. The royal family in Jordan were no threat, The Lebanese were still engaged in recovery from their civil war. Arafat formed part of this predictable environment. They had no need to execute him.
Arafat had been given the chance to demonstrate that he was another peace maker in the mold of Mandela and had failed to take the opportunity. It is argued, of course that he faced a pro-Israeli deal from the Clinton Administration and Ehud Barak, then President of Israel in the late 1990’s but this misses the point. His failure to manoeuvre onto the moral high ground lost him international credibility and damaged his side’s moral case. It allowed the Israeli’s to paint him as a moral and political pygmy.
So we must ask ourselves, why the Israeli’s would risk being caught, risk turning Arafat into a martyr, when he was so comprehensively discredited.
That stated, if there is a case to answer, there is clearly a case for pursuing the evidence. Yet here too, there is little that can really be gained from doing so.
Scenario 1: In scenario 1, his remains are exhumed and found conclusively to be radioactive. Clearly, Arafat was poisoned, clearly the suspicion must then fall on the Israeli Government as prime suspect in his murder.
Well, there is a round of condemnations. Arab Leaders lead the charge, condemning the Israeli’s in absolute moral terms for showing contempt for international law and, arguably, guilt in terms of crimes against humanity. World leaders follow. The Americans release a statement condemning such an act. The British in particular, having seen this product used on their own soil by a foreign power, are especially condemnatory. Everyone is agreed that Israel is morally wrong. Oddly, the Russians are silent. Everyone assumes they were actively using this material in assassinations at the time as well. It is likely that they would have colluded with the Israeli’s in its use on Arafat. A statement is released without fanfare pointing out that use of polonium is not a specifically Russian foible.
And then… Nothing.
No arrests are made. No sanctions imposed. No trials are held. Nothing. Arafat’s remains are deposited into a lead-lined box and put back in the ground. To those for whom he was a martyr, he remains a martyr. To those for whom he was a terrorist, he remains a terrorist, and for those for whom he was a flawed, radical politician, who failed to lead his people to a peaceful solution, he remains just that.
The people of the Arab world will not change their opinion of the Israeli’s one iota. Long before the Arab Spring ushered in an era of democratic mandate in some Arab countries, the regimes in all such polities routinely blame Israel for all the evils of the area. I have never met an Arab who believes Israel has a legitimate right to exist and have never seen or read any article or news report in this region which attempts to provide an Israeli perspective on the conflict.
I say this not because I expect that the world would change if The Arab News began reporting Netanyahu’s speeches, or delicately suggesting that Israel is in a bit of a bind itself and is required to act in the way it does to ensure its perceived interests.
But I am suggesting that as no such suggestion has ever been made in any part of the Arab world since the inception of an Israeli state, it is reasonable to assume that public opinion in the Middle East is going to be overwhelmingly anti-Israel. Why would it not be. Morsi, and Mubarak may share nothing else in common, but they do share a belief that Israel is to be condemned publicly in all eventualities. Why? Because doing so readily speaks to the victim-hood and fraternal sympathy Arabs feel for the oppressed Palestinians; because it is actually extremely beneficial to an Arab politician to have a bogeyman on the doorstep. It means that if there are difficulties at home, you can distract the public with talk of the duplicitous Israeli’s.
It is effectively treating the Arab people with disrespect, forcibly infantilising their views. It is, in American parlance, Dog-Whistle politics. It is dirty. But it is useful.
But what it means is that finding that Arafat was poisoned means nothing. Israel will not go down in the estimation of the Arab world. It is hated already. Iran will continue to enrich uranium just as it was before. The Israeli’s will continue to ignore the EU and look to America for continued support, which it will give, because the alternative is the collapse of Israel and a fundamental power shift in the Middle East generally, which is in no one’s interest, least of all the people who live there.
Scenario 2: So Arafat’s remains are exhumed and Polonium is found not to be present in large quantities. What does this prove? Well, not very much. For those who believe he was poisoned or at least assassinated by The Mossad, this does not prove that he wasn’t For those who deny Israel’s involvement, this proves what they believed all along.
Arab public opinion does not harden or soften towards Israel. Why would it? The Arab News is not going to publish any articles suggesting that the Israeli’s appear not to be so bad after all. There is no smoking gun: no green, fluorescent skeleton. People go on with their prejudices just as before.
So we are left to ask, why bother? What will this exercise achieve?
Well, it will achieve something. For certain interested parties, it will achieve political credit. For the family of Arafat and those who believe he was assassinated it will provide them with hope that this can be proved. If it does, it serves to resurrect his memory and assist in the creation of a myth of his importance at the time of his death.
It allows people of varying political ideologies to create a martyr of his name and attach themselves to it. For certain people this will grant them a sense of political legitimacy by granting them a perceived continuity with the past.
If it is not conclusive these groups will still gain a short-term political bounce from creating the attention and myth and from playing on people’s prejudices. And it will not stop them from casting doubt on the circumstances of his death.
However, while these things are important, in a febrile political atmosphere and Western politicians are as guilty of such low politics as any Arab protagonist of the dark arts. The fact remains that this is grubby.
Certainly it will not lead to greater stability in the region, prosperity for Arab or Israeli people or a quicker Palestinian State. And it will in no way eclipse the reality of a changing dynamic at work in the region. The recent exchange of Rockets between Hamas and Israel and the peace brokered by Egypt, express clearly the very different dynamic that is emerging from what went before. Egypt was empowered not the strategic success of the Hamas attacks, most of which failed, but by the powerful position its leader enjoys as a result of his democratic mandate and the close working relationship the Muslim Brotherhood enjoys with Hamas.
This Pragmatic Islamism, is the new dynamic in the region to the south of Israel and like it or not, it enjoys every bit as much democratic legitimacy as the Knesset. To the north, the dynamic is still emerging. Hezbollah may be strengthened or weakened by the outcome of the Syrian Civil War and the result with determine whether Turkey, Iran or Egypt enjoy the power and influence over the West Bank Palestinians in the next decade.
What we can say with certainty, however, is that Arafat’s Pan-Arabist ideology is irrelevant to this process. His time came and went in his lifetime. The manner of his passing will not change that.
There are high-minded aims in the politics of this region. There are goals and ideals which can inspire people to greatness of aspiration and behavior The presence of the three great Abrahamic Religions in this region can inspire people to feats of the political imagination which transcend the grubby world of politics. It can happen, and occasionally it does. Sometimes, a person or movement emerges that changes the dynamic utterly. Gandhi, Mandela, Bolivar, Washington, Napoleon.
In a different world, Arafat, might have risen during his life to such elevated company. That he did not, is not necessarily his fault. He represented his own people and he represented political ideology that was formed in its time, against a backdrop of a Cold War. Moreover he was a politician and a man and was flawed as a result. There appeared a brief moment when things might have happened differently. But that moment passed and neither he, nor his counterparts in Israel were able to rise to the challenge of greatness.
We should not now imagine that this will change now that he is dead. It may be right from a moral stand point to exhume and examine his remains. If a crime has been committed it should be established. But let us not imagine that politically this represents any sort of higher ideals.
He like all the other Pan-Arabist Strongmen should be judged for his deeds in life rather than the manner of his death. Afterwards, he should be allowed the dignity of a peaceful burial. As for the rest, it is for God alone to preside at the day of judgement.