Jacob Heilbrunn

Was Yasser Arafat Poisoned?

Poor Secretary of State John Kerry. He's been traipsing around the Middle East, trying to revive—when, incidentally, is it not trying to be revived?—the peace process and assuage ruffled feathers among the Saudis and other American allies. At the same time, the Israeli right, as the Washington Post observes today, is getting more restive, openly denouncing the idea of a two-state solution and calling for the annexation of much, if not all, of the West Bank. Meanwhile, it's unclear whether Syria really is cooperating fully to dispose of its chemical weapons. The Middle East, in other words, remains a hotbed of political conundrums that defy easy resolution.

Now, thanks to the diligent efforts of Swiss scientists, who have been engaging in forensic examinations since November 2012, comes the news that Yasser Arafat, the longtime Palestinian leader who, at least officially, died of a stroke in 2004, may have been poisoned with the radioactive substance polonium-210 (though Russian scientists say they found no such evidence). Polonium is a nasty substance, it almost goes without saying, that can apparently terminate even hardiest soul with great dispatch. (Recall that the former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko expired quickly in Novembert 2006 after he ingested polonium that had been secretly poured into a cup of tea.) The amounts in his ribs, pelvis, and, as the Guardian delicately puts it, "soil that absorbed his bodily fluids," appear to have been 18 times the normal level.

Should anyone care?

Well, Palestinians probably do. A lot. Arafat's wife Suha, for example, is calling it "the crime of the century," which is a pretty big claim given that the century is in its infancy. Many think the Israelis—or, to put it more precisely, the Mossad—did it, which Jerusalem denies. This would redound to the Mossad's credit in terms of its reputation for being almost omnipotent. But there was no great reason for the Israeli government to authorize such an operation other than to exact revenge for Arafat's past depredations.

Who else might be a culprit? Arafat had plenty of enemies inside his own camp. But suspicions about Israeli involvement remain rife. The Guardian notes,

Danny Rubinstein, a journalist and author of a book about Arafat, had a different memory of events. In the weeks and months before Arafat's death, he said, people in Sharon's inner circle talked constantly about how to get rid of him. 'For me, it was very clear from the beginning. Every day this was the topic—should we expel him, or kill him, or bomb the Muqata [Arafat's HQ]. It was obvious to me that they would find a way.'

There is an upside to this story, at least from the perspective of the Middle East. It provides fresh fodder for conspiracy theories, something the region has never been short on. It can now be safely assumed that Arafat's legend will take on a new dimension. The martyred hero, the resolute fighter who never capitulated to the Israelis. For Kerry, however, it is another boulder in the path of a Middle East peace. If Palestinians believe, as many do, that Israel is responsible, they will be even less receptive to any leader seeking to reach a peace treaty.

Image: Flickr/JBrazito. CC BY 2.0.