Thursday, November 11, 2004

Arafat - moves behind the scene

IT was a forgone conclusion for most people in the Middle East that Yasser Arafat was bidding farewell to Palestine for ever as he was flown out to Paris last month for treatment for a mystery illness that has yet to be fully explained. Now that it has become a uncertainty that he does not have much time left in this world, all eyes are on the Palestinian scene, seeking out signals that might indicate the future of the Palestinian people's struggle for liberation from Israeli occupation in the absence of the leader who represented the cause for nearly five decades, writes PV Vivekanand
THE ruling by the top Palestinian Islamic religious leader on Wednesday against withdrawing life support for Arafat might prolong the Palestinian leader's existence for a few hours or a few days more, but the course of the Palestinian struggle that he launched faces a stiff challenge in his absence.
No doubt Arafat, 75, was in the "final phase of his life" when Taisser Bayoud Tamimi, a cleric who heads the Islamic court in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, made the ruling that it was un-Islamic to pull the plug off the life support system that is keeping the Palestinian president alive.

Leadership moves

Back home in Palestine, the Palestinian leadership based in the West Bank named Parliament Speaker Rawhi Fattuh as caretaker president in the absence of Arafat. A successor will be elected in 60 days.
The Palestinian leadership also decided prime minister Mahmoud Abbas, Abu Mazen, will automatically take over as permanent head of both Arafat's dominant Fatah faction and the PLO upon Arafat's death, while current premier Ahmed Qorei, Abu Alaa, will head up the national security council.
The Palestinian leadership also decided prime minister Mahmoud Abbas, Abu Mazen, will automatically take over as permanent head of both Arafat's dominant Fatah faction and the PLO upon Arafat's death, while current premier Ahmed Qorei, Abu Alaa, will head up the national security council.
The decisions meant divvying up the leadership of the four organisations which had all been headed by Arafat among three different men.
This move might or might not have put an end to the power struggle, since the question remains whether they could work together in the absence of Arafat, who had the ability to hold the leadership together despite all odds.

Possible challenge

The PLO leadership might have to reckon with a possible challenge put up by Farouq Qaddoumi, Abu Lutuf, who is based in Tunis and heads the Political Department of the PLO. In that capacity, he was also the Palestinian foreign minister until Arafat named West Bank-based Nabil Shaath to that post last year.
Qaddoumi, a long-term Arafat associate who opted to stay back in exile while the PLO chairman moved to Gaza in 1994 under the Oslo agreements signed with Israel in 1993, has added a twist to the situation.
Qaddoumi said that since test results did not pinpoint a cause for Arafat's illness, he suspects poisoning, although he did not say by whom or offer any evidence back his charge.
"From the beginning, we have had doubts that the deterioration in President Arafat's health was due to poisoning. We have not changed our opinion," said Qaddoumi, who visited Arafat's hospital last Friday.
Indeed, many Palestinians believe that Israeli agents poisoned Arafat as he remained cooped up at his Ramallah headquarters under virtual house arrest since late 2001. They argue that Israel possesses the technology to effectively use biological and chemical weapons from long distance. Some others say that Israel might have coerced, through threats or money, someone close to Arafat to poison the Palestinian leader.

The Suha equation

Observers are closely watching whether Suha Arafat, 41, the ailing president's wife who lives in Paris, had formed any alliance with Qaddoumi to stake a claim for either a role in the Palestinian political scene or ultimately a share of the Palestinian funds Arafat invested and deposited outside to serve the cause.
Indeed, Suha Arafat should have a fairly clear idea about the PLO finances since she served as her husband's secretary for a long before he married her in the early 90s and remained with him until three years ago.
The question is whether she would opt to insist that the funds belonged to her husband in person instead of the organisation he headed.
Mohammed Rashid, the only man said to possess details of the funds, has reportedly rejected handing them over to Suha Arafat and insisted that he would report only to the Palestinian leadership.

Palestinian funds

Most observers in the Middle East say it is highly doubtful that Arafat has any illegal bank account holding massive amounts for himself. They say there could be PLO money held in deposits and investments in the Middle East and outside, but that is not Arafat's money and it is a sure bet that he never intended it to be his personal wealth.
Having closely watched Arafat's movements and pattern of behaviour over the last three decades, most Middle East watchers tend to reject out of hand the suggestion that he secretly owns hotels, beach resorts and other commercial enterprises in Europe and elsewhere worth hundreds of millions of dollars and considers them as his personal assets.

No 'secret Arafat millions'

Arafat retained sole control of PLO funds throughout the decades since he became chairman of the PLO; but it is almost certain that the money, whatever is left of the Palestinian, Arab and international contributions that he received over the decades, is invested in a manner that would serve the Palestinian cause.
Suha Arafat, whose relations with her husband were strained since late 2001 when she moved out of the Palestinian territories to Paris with their nine-year-old daughter, apparently calmed down after her hysterical outburst against the leadership early on Monday morning, as she probably realised that her remarks that Arafat aides wanted to "bury him alive" sparked enormous Palestinian anger.
However, there is no iron-clad assurance that the dispute, whether political or financial or a combination of both, is settled. It might raise its head again once Arafat dies and is laid to rest.
Despite all his shortcomings, perceived or otherwise, Arafat could not be accused of amassing personal wealth. Whatever PLO funds and assets do exist, they represent Palestinian money for all practical and technical purposes.
But then, that is not the way Israel would like the world and the Palestinian people to know it. It would like Arafat to be totally discredited and accused of amassing and salting away wealth for himself at the expense of his people. By extension, it would also discredit people who were close to him and shared his ideals and approach to the cause of his people. Israel obviously hopes that the path it has paved would eventually lead to someone who it feels would suit its purpose in terms of imposing the Israeli version of a peace agreement on the Palestinian people.
That is what the game is all about, but Israel would only find the goal elusive.

'Power struggle'

It was known for long that short-term chaos would hit Palestinian politics and leadership as and when Arafat dies. That is only a reflection of the very nature of the Palestinian scene that was for long dominated by Arafat, who had maintained his position as absolute leader by balancing his top aides with and against each other.
As of press time early Thursday, Arafat was in a deep coma, on life support, with bleeding in the brain and problems with other vital organs. Death could come any time, reports suggested.
The grand mufti of Jerusalem, Sheikh Ekrima Sabri, said Arafat had to die naturally, "even if it takes days, weeks or months, it doesn't matter."
"It's not a political question," Sabri ruled.
However, the Palestinians were preparing for Arafat's burial in Ramallah, only a few kilometres from Jerusalem where he would have been buried had it not been for the Israeli fear of the man in his death as a rallying point for the Palestinian masses at large.
As of Wednesday, it was agreed that Cairo would host the main funeral in view of the "security" problems for world dignitaries who might want to pay homage to the symbol of one of the longest liberation struggles.
Israel, which refused to allow Arafat to be buried in Jerusalem and suggest Gaza as an alternative, has agreed that he be laid to rest at his sandbagged headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah known as the Muqataa compound.

Israeli deception

As they await Arafat's death, the Palestinian leaders in the West Bank and their supporters have to be alert on several fronts:
Israeli efforts to sow dissent in their ranks and take advantage of inter-Palestinian differences. It has been reported that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his military generals are eyeing Abbas as a potential candidate for pressure to negotiate their version of a deal that they hope would end the Palestinian struggle.
Washington has stepped into the political fray by affirming that it is ready to pursue the "road map" for peace. US Secretary of State Colin Powell said on Monday he was impressed by the Palestinian leaders' handling of Arafat's absence and said he hoped the "relative calm" in the region would continue.
"I hope that sense of quiet and calm can be maintained and (that) it gives us something to work with," Powell said. He reiterated that the United States was "ready to engage as soon as it is appropriate to engage" with the road map peace plan.
However, the plan seemed to be still born, given Sharon's insistence on amending it to suit Israel on 14 counts. He has shown no sign that he is willing to climb down from his position.
US President George Bush followed up Powell, saying he saw a fresh opening for Mideast peace as a new leader emerges to replace Arafat.
"There will be opening for peace when leadership of the Palestinian people steps forward and says, 'Help us build a democratic and free society,'" Bush said on Wednesday,
"And when that happens - and I believe it's going to happen because I believe all people desire to live in freedom — the United States of America will be more than willing to help build the institutions necessary for a free society to emerge so that the Palestinians can have their own state," Bush said.
"The vision is of two states, a Palestinian state and Israel living side by side, and I think we've got a chance to do that, and I look forward to being involved in that process," Bush said.
Indeed, the Middle East and the rest of the world are hoping that a second-term Bush would have a freer hand to deal with the Palestinian problem and could steer the almost defunct peace process in a new direction that is closer to the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people.
However, his reference to a two-state solution might not exactly be music to Sharon's ears, and it is unlikely that the Israeli prime minister would step away from his quest to pressure the post-Arafat leadership into signing on the Israeli-dotted line.
Abbas, who resigned as prime minister because of serious differences with Arafat over presidential and prime ministerial powers, has given no indication that he would accept any compromise. On the contrary, he has firmly and consistently refused to entertain any proposal that falls short of the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people to set up an independent state with Arab East Jerusalem as its capital.

The Islamist angle

Efforts by Islamist groups such as Hamas to advance their quest for liberation of the Palestine of 1948. Although deemed as unrealistic and largely an opening gambit, Hamas is unlikely to come to terms with the moderate position that accepts that the proposed state of Palestine be created in the West Bank and Gaza based on the frontiers that existed during the 1967 war when Israel occupied the territories.
At the same time, Hamas — which is powerful and influential and a strong contender for support among Palestinians in both Gaza and the West Bank —  and like-minded Islamic Jihad are seeking a share of power by calling for a unified Palestinian leadership.
Thrown into the bargain is Sharon's plans to "unilaterally disengage" from the Palestinians starting with withdrawing his army from the Gaza Strip and dismantling Jewish settlements in the troublesome area while consolidating Israel's grip on the West Bank.
Naturally, in the immediate context, such a move would leave a vacuum in the Gaza Strip, with Hamas and the mainstream Palestinian leadership vying for control of the territory.
Indeed, Sharon wanted to create that rift and fuel internal Palestinian strife without exposing Israelis to security threats while Arafat was alive and present in the West Bank. Would he shift his strategy now, hoping to hold on to the Gaza Strip as a bargaining chip now that he might be hoping to find someone who could sign away the rights of the Palestinian people?
No matter how one views it in whatever angle, the future of the Palestinian struggle for independence and statehood remains as bleak as ever, regardless of whether Arafat is alive or absent from Palestine.