Friday, November 05, 2004

Wanted: Dead Nor Alive

Yasser Arafat might not be dead, but how long can they keep him alive? 

On Friday, Israel's Justice Minister Yosef Lapid said Arafat was being kept alive artificially, but the source of his information was not clear. "We all know that clinically he's dead but we won't interfere with internal Palestinian affairs. They'll announce his death when they find it proper," he told Associated Press Television News.

A Palestinian spokeswoman denied Lapid's assertion. "He is in a coma. We don't know the type but it's a reversible coma," Leila Shahid, the Palestinian envoy to France, told French RTL radio. Shahid suggested the coma occurred after Arafat was put under anesthesia for medical tests including an endoscopy, colonoscopy and a biopsy of the spinal cord. She said doctors do not yet have a diagnosis.

His existence may be less a matter of fact than a matter of state. An official extension of Arafat's time on earth would give the pretenders to his throne more time to bury the hatchets in each other's backs. The vultures have already gathered at his bedside.

Many members of the Palestinian leadership, Arafat's closest aides, and his wife, Suha, gathered in Paris. Many were staying at the Intercontinental Hotel in the Opera neighborhood of Paris. Observers said that the power struggle within the Palestinian leadership was already taking place, even in Paris as members gathered by their leader's bed.

It's unclear what anyone can gain from a man unable to anoint a successor and who may never waken again. Perhaps the mere fiction that Arafat still lives and occupies the Palestinian Presidency will be enough to prevent an open claim to the supreme position. The demons may be momentarily held back; but only just. Yet the inherent instability is that the fiction cannot be sustained indefinitely.

But while French medical sources said Arafat was technically still alive, they added that he was brain dead and was breathing only with the help of life support machines while in an irreversible coma. Technically, Arafat is "not dead", one source said on condition of confidentiality. But there was no hope of his leaving his vegetative state and recovering basic bodily functions such as breathing without assistance. Such artificial care could be "extended for several days or several weeks thanks to the machines", the source said.

Then the real weakness of the position, the absence of stable Palestinian institutions, will soon manifest itself with a vengeance. Once internecine struggle breaks out each faction will call for international backers in a kind of bizarre, winner-take-all casino game where human lives are chips. The prospect of striking a deal with the eventual survivor is called 'finding a partner for peace'. Dennis Ross says:

"Certainly with Arafat out of the way, you have an impediment removed," Dennis Ross, the chief Middle East negotiator for the first President Bush and for Mr Clinton said. But, he said, the Bush administration must expect a protracted, potentially tumultuous process for replacing Arafat, and should begin pressing now for elections in which Palestinians choose a new leader. If Arafat passes from the scene, whoever is elected or appointed to replace him "couldn't be worse" from the US viewpoint, said Ross, who recently wrote a book titled The Missing Peace on his experiences negotiating with Arafat and other leaders in the region.

The only reason why the gang of scoundrels which make up the Palestinian leadership may opt for election, which is the least familiar tool of their polity, is if they fear intramural warfare will consume them all. But they may turn to the gun anyway out of sheer habit. The Israeli Defense Force has prepared contingency plan "New Leaf" against the possibility that all hell will break loose.

IDF commanders were instructed, should such a situation arise, to do everything in their power to prevent a flare-up and reduce friction between troops and Palestinian demonstrators in West Bank and Gaza towns. Even so, commanders were also told to make every effort to prevent demonstrations from overrunning IDF roadblocks and settlements in the territories.

The French may have performed a valuable service by admitting Arafat to a military hospital in Europe which will reduce the risk of imputing his death to Jewish poisoning, a rumor that has already made the rounds in the Middle East.

in Jerusalem, after it was reported that Arafat had died, several dozen Jewish demonstrators celebrated in a city square, declaring that one of the greatest enemies of the Jewish people was "on his way to hell". ... The head of Islamic Jihad in Gaza, Mohammed al-Hindi, said the high committee of Palestinian and national Islamic factions would meet at the Gaza offices of the Palestinian parliament. "We will discuss the dangerous situation, especially what will happen if the president were to die," Hindi said. The high committee is an umbrella forum of 13 factions including Arafat's Fatah party, the Islamist movement Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).

Even after Arafat dies the various terrorist factions can mark some time by making his place of burial an issue.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has said he would not permit Arafat to be buried in Jerusalem, which is claimed by both Israel and the Palestinians as their capital. Army chiefs said they had also ruled out a burial in the Jerusalem suburb of Abu Dis in the West Bank.

Sooner or later a day with neither Arafat nor his ghost must dawn, but even in life he was a phantom; the counterfeit of a peace process rather than its reality, maybe the only specter ever to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The greatest tragedy that could attend his passage is for the diplomats to select yet another shadowy figure rather than the hard reality of stable Palestinian institutions upon which to found their slim hopes of peace.