Sunday, November 07, 2004

Even before his death...

AN expected inter-Palestinian struggle for power and money is definitely happening even before Yasser Arafat is officially proclaimed dead (Some media reports suggest that Arafat's death would be announced on Ramadan 27, Leilat Al Kadr, the day the Holy Koran was revealed to the Prophet Mohammed, PUBH. But, if Suha Arafat is to be believed, then Arafat is very much alive in a Paris hospital and his senior aides want to "bury him alive" in order to grab power at the helm of Palestinian affairs).
Well, let the events play out by themselves. At the same time, running parallel to the Palestinian infighting is an Israeli-mounted campaign to discredit Arafat even in what could be his last hours by suggesting that he holds in his name or proxies hundreds of millions of dollars in assets and investments outside the Middle East.
Let us tackle the second issue first — "Arafat's secret millions" as reports in the Western press describe it.
Most observers in the Middle East say it is highly doubtful that Arafat has any illegal bank account holding massive amounts for himself. Yes, there could be Palestine Liberation Organisation (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.

Serving the cause

Indeed, 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.
Israel's hand could be seen behind a report in the British press that described Arafat as "one of the world's wealthiest heads of state" (Thank God, the London newspaper, wittingly or unwittngly, acknowledged Arafat as a head of state, a rare fete in the British press, save a couple of mainstream dailies. Surely, Israel would not have expected that description, given that the State of Palestine is not in its agenda).
During the 70s and 80s, Arafat did receive billions of dollars in Arab assistance as well as proceeds from a "liberation tax" collected from Palestinians working in Arab countries, but the generous contribution came to a halt with the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.
The bulk of that money was spent on administrative expenses of the PLO as well as cash assistance to refugees and families of Palestinians killed and maimed in the resistance struggle in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. A part of the money was invested abroad whose proceeds were also spent on administrative costs since the 90s.
Arab aid to the PLO was suspended when Arafat supported Saddam Hussein in the crisis sparked by the invasion of Kuwait in August 1990. Although Arab governments did resume the aid after a hiatus, the actual amount was nowhere near what the PLO used to receive before 1990.

Selective recipients

The secrecy that Arafat maintained on the status of the PLO funds was always a source of concern for the rest of the Palestinian leadership. Two years ago, Arafat came under immense pressure to reveal the details, and he did submit a report to the PLO Executive Committee although it was not seen as comprehensive. Again, the logic was that Arafat did have an accounting system but he preferred to keep the cards of PLO funds close to his chest.
Let us also not forget that a Palestinian official who has claimed that "billions of dollars" in PLO funds have disappeared was discredited years ago after he himself was found to have been engaged in dubious deals that suggested siphoning off funds for personal benefit.
At best, Arafat could be accused of being varyingly selective which of the eight Palestinian factions grouped under the PLO umbrella received funds from him. And, indeed, he was generous with some of his senior aides whose support he needed in order to maintain his position.
Right or wrong, that was his style of management. Let us not forget, Arafat is described as the "greatest political survivor" of the Middle East who has always dumbfounded those who, at times of his crises, made the mistake of writing him off from the political scene.
(Once a late Palestinian leader close to Arafat retorted to someone who accused the Palestinian president of being whimsical: "Yes, he might be whimsical, but show me a non-whimsical man capable of leading the Palestinian struggle.")

International aid

International assistance to the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) that Arafat set up in accordance with the Oslo agreements he signed with Israel in 1993 was mostly project-specific. Often he reported difficulty meeting administrative expenses and the donors had to step in often with cash aid to pay salaries of PNA staff, including the Palestinian police force.
Israel claims it handed over a total of $300 million to the PNA between 1993 and 2000. The money, which represented taxes Israel collected from the Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza under provisions in interim agreements, should be seen in context — it cost more than $500 million every year in administrative costs alone to run the PNA.
Since 2000, in the wake of the renewed Palestinian intifada, Israel stopped those payments to the PNA.
The long and short of it is simple: Despite all his shortcomings, perceived or otherwise, Arafat could not be accused of amassing personal wealth. Whatever PLO funds and assets are there, 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.

The struggle for power

It was known for long that 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 against each other.
However, no one expected the intriguing way things turned out in the last 10 days.
There is no designated Arafat successor. Three names have been floated: Prime Minister Ahmed Qorei, former prime minister Mahmoud Abbas, who is secretary-general of the PLO, and the Tunis-based head of the PLO Political Department, Farouk Qaddoumi, who was de facto foreign minister until Arafat named Nabil Shaath to that post last year and who claims he becomes the chairman of the PLO in the absence of Arafat.
Qurei and Abbas have been working together to administer Palestinian affairs in Arafat's absence and to prevent chaos and violence should the Palestinian president die.
Qaddoumi turned up Paris last week and reportedly questioned the authority of Abbas to take over some of the powers of Arafat. He insisted that he was the immediate deputy to Arafat and Abbas should report to him, according to some reports.
However, it is not clear whether Qaddoumi, who refused to move to the Palestinian territories along with Arafat, will unlikely to drop that posture in a post-Arafat era.
Suha Arafat stepped into that scene on Monday by declaring that Qorei, Abbas and Shaath were going to France in order to usurp the role of her husband as Palestinian leader.
"Let it be known to the honest Palestinian people that a bunch of those who want to inherit are coming to Paris," she told Al Jazeera television over the phone.
"You have to realise the size of the conspiracy. I tell you they are trying to bury Abu Ammar alive," she said. "He is all right and he is going home. God is great."
The trio abruptly cancelled and then rescheduled the trip.
Suha Arafat has tightly controlled information on Arafat's condition sparking Palestinian protests that she has gained too much power.
"It's an absurd situation that Suha is sitting there and deciding when, how and who," according to Palestinian minister of stat Sufian Abu Zaida. "This is a woman who hasn't seen her husband for three years. It is bizarre that at the end of his days, his wife decides who enters and who does not."
"Yasser Arafat is not the private property of Suha Arafat," said Abu Zaida.
That argument will find renosance with the Palestinian masses, for whom Arafat is the icon and symbol of their struggle for independence and life in dignity.
However, there has to be something more to Suha Arafat's outburst and it may or may not have anything to do with the "secret millions" but with his actual medical condition.
As of press time on Tuesday, there was no definite word on Arafat's condition. Only the doctors who are attending to him and Suha Arafat knew; and that seems to be the source of the dispute over the Qorei-Abbas-Shaath trip to Paris.
The dispute could take a worse turn if Suha Arafat refuses to allow the three to see her husband.
The Israeli media have indeed been playing havoc with reports of Arafat's status. They first reported that he was dead, then that he was brain dead and then that he had opened his eyes.
Rawhi Fatooh, the speaker of the Palestinian parliament, who was to have accompanied the team of three to Paris, said he expects an apology from Suha Arafat for the outburst.
It seems that Suha Arafat might be arguing for a decisive role in Arafat succession.
A Nablus-born Christian, Suha served as Arafat's secretary when he was in exile in Tunis in the 1980s. She converted to Islam in 1991, and married Arafat when he was a 62 and she was 28.
She followed her husband back to the occupied territories in 1994, but left for Paris in 2000. Many saw it as her disappearance from the scene, and few expected her to assume any influence over her husband's eventual succession.
She has, it would seem, proven them wrong.