Vermont Public Radio Comment for Friday July 13th, 2012

INTRO: Ever since his death in 2004 there have been rumors that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat did not die of natural causes. As commentator and veteran ABC News foreign correspondent Barrie Dunsmore tells us today, new information has come to light that suggests Arafat might have been poisoned.

TEXT: The latest speculation about possible foul play in Yasser Arafat’s death, was set off by an investigation by Al Jazeera, the Gulf Arab television network. According to its report, the Swiss Radiophysics Institute found “surprisingly” high levels of polonium-210 on Arafat’s clothing. This is the substance used a few years ago to kill a former Russian spy who had defected to the West. However the Swiss also said the symptoms described in Arafat’s medical records were not consistent with radioactive poisoning.  

Still this was enough to have Arafat’s window Suha ask that her husband’s body be exhumed to have his remains tested. And earlier this week, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas gave his final approval to have the body removed from its mausoleum in the West Bank city of Ramallah. In addition to a new post mortem, Abbas has also called for an international investigation into what and who may have killed Arafat.

The mystery surrounding Arafat’s death, has led to many conspiracy theories – the principal one being that the Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization had finally been done in by his arch enemies- the Israelis. This is certainly plausible. But I have my doubts. 

Throughout his life, Arafat had many enemies – and they were by no means all Israelis. At various times, the Jordanians, the Syrians and various Lebanese factions - not to mention his political opponents among Palestinians - would have been happy to see him removed.

Arafat was acutely paranoid. Legend once had it that he never slept in the same place two nights in a row. When I was working in the Middle East in the 1970s and 80s, I interviewed him a few times. On those occasions we would go to a designated place- always in the middle of the night. Then we would be taken somewhere else in a darkened vehicle- and sometimes to still another place. Even then, after waiting for hours, there might be no meeting at all.

Yet in spite of all this cloak and dagger stuff, some of my journalistic colleagues and I believed at the time, that if the Israelis really wanted to get rid of Arafat, they were smart enough to figure out how to do so.  

The fact that they didn’t, led of us to conclude that the Israelis were quite happy to have Arafat be the poster boy for Palestinians terrorism. This was no glamorous revolutionary the likes of Che Guevara. This was a rumpled, somewhat over-weight, middle-aged man who couldn’t grow much of a beard and most of the time simply looked like he needed a shave. Nor was he intellectually suited to be like Gandhi and use non –violent tactics instead of terrorism to achieve Palestinian statehood.  

By the end of his life, Arafat had failed because he was basically afraid to make peace with Israel. And then, as now, I expect that was fine with the Israeli government.

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