An X element that George W. Bush and Tony Blair are not inclined to take into account in their Middle East calculus is Jacques Chirac and his capacity for mischief-making.
Yasser Arafat‘s perilous state of health offered the French president an opportunity to lay hands on one of the region’s foremost players and fine tune the pace of the 75-year old Palestinian leader’s demise to his advantage. Chirac readily picked up the challenge. On October 29, Arafat was admitted to the heavily-secured Percy military hospital outside Paris, from which he never came out alive.
Arafat’s death was formally announced by the hospital outside Paris early Thursday, November 11. In fact he died at 1:12 p.m. Paris time Wednesday, November 3.
The intervening days saw one of the strangest deathwatches in modern history, during which rival Palestinian officials and spokesmen in Paris and Ramallah issued wildly creative bulletins to keep up the pretence that their dead leader was not only alive but about to return home fully recovered. A solemn French spokesman produced meaningless communiques that betrayed no hint of the nature of Arafat’s ailment or condition.
The stream of fiction flowed out daily and was picked up hungrily by the waiting media outside the hospital while, inside its intensive care unit, Arafat’s brain stopped functioning, his immune system collapsed, he lapsed into a deep coma, and his liver and kidneys failed. All that kept him clinically alive – aside from the fabrications of Palestinian officials – was a respirator and two machines pumping blood to his heart, kidneys and spleen.
Knowing his true condition, Chirac did not bother to visit his guest. But his Middle East advisers, who had set up a special situation room in the Elysee Palace to handle the Arafat situation, advised him that neglecting to pay his respects to the Palestinian leader before the death announcement would not go down well with the Arab and Muslim circles France is anxious to influence.
The presidential visit took place on November 5, a week after Arafat was admitted to hospital.
Looking down at his lifeless body, Chirac said nothing and then left the room. He then told the press that he had chatted with Arafat and they had shaken hands.
At that point, Chirac finally picked up the phone to inform President George W. Bush that it was all over; Arafat was dead. By then, Arafat had spent a whole week in the French hospital without a word of briefing from the French government to Washington on his medical condition.
Once informed, US officials were sent post haste to Ramallah on November 6 to offer Palestinian prime minister Ahmed Qureia Washington’s services in the crisis. They intimated to Palestinian official and security officials scrambling for a foothold in the post-Arafat transition administration that the Bush administration would extend a helping hand to those prepared to fit in with American policy objectives.
Chirac was finding the potato he had grasped getting too hot to hold. His advisers warned him that the discovery of France’s lingering cover-up of Arafat’s death would be acutely embarrassing and should end. The dour hospital spokesman, Christian Estripeau, of the French military medical service, was instructed to notify Suha Arafat, who had refused to move from her husband’s bedside, that there would be no more formal French hospital bulletins. She was given to understand that it was time to remove the awkward package from France by pulling the plug on Arafat’s life support. By French law, only Suha as next of kin could authorize this.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Paris, an angry Suha “fired” Leila Shahid, the PLO’s ambassador to France and ordered her to stop issuing statements on Arafat’s condition. The French defense ministry then issued a one-line communique intended to ring the curtain down on what was beginning to look like a Palestinian theater of the absurd: “There has been no change in Arafat’s condition.” That bulletin at least was no lie – dead is dead.
Paris’s timing was geared to its attempts to ingratiate itself with the Muslim world. Putting the Arafat funeral on fast forward would permit the last rites to take place Friday, November 12 and get the mourning period out of the way before the Eid festival. Arabs and Muslims could then go ahead and enjoy the festival celebrations. French diplomacy would be free to take up positions for the post-Arafat transitional era, advancing on the stepping stones laid while Arafat was kept artificially alive in Percy hospital.
The French president’s immediate objective is to raise an alternative Palestinian leadership to challenge the pair of Palestinian leaders whom he regards as overly pro-American: prime minister, Ahmed Qureia aka Abu Ala and Arafat’s deputy, former prime minister Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen).
The Paris-aligned axis in opposition would hinge on hardline PLO foreign minister and politburo chief Farouk al-Kaddoumi, who recently moved from Damascus to Tunis, Arafat’s confidants Hani al-Hassan, commander of Force 17, the “presidential guard” which has grown into an important Ramallah-based terrorist group, Colonel Faisal Abu-Shrak, and General Mohammed Jihad, who lives in Jordan.
Paris helps Suha feather her nest
That Suha Arafat lives in Paris make her an easy object of control for the French. She was happy to use Chirac’s backing to feather her nest at the expense of the Palestinian Authority by delaying the disconnection of Arafat’s life support system until her French lawyers’ demands were met.
Those lawyers were hired by her constant companion and financial adviser, the shadowy Lebanese Maronite Christian businessman Pierre Rizk, known also as Akram. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence sources, the French believe Rizk has the background and connections they need to cash in on their newfound advantage on the Palestinian issue and create an anti-American Palestinian leadership front. From his days as intelligence chief of the Christian Phalange militia in the second half of the Lebanese civil war, Rizk has developed exceptional intelligence connections, which are especially strong in Beirut and Damascus. Those are the Middle East capitals in which France too boasts most influence. Rezk also maintains active business ties with leading Palestinian businessmen, such as the powerful Kanafani banking family – a member of which, Marwan, was once Arafat’s spokesman – and also with ruling circles in Damascus.
In his former life, Rizk was right-hand man to Eli Hobeika, the Christian warlord behind the 1982 massacre in Beirut’s Sabra and Chatilla refugee camps, where some 600 Palestinians, including many women and children, were slaughtered and 1,800 are missing to this day. In 22 years, enough water has flown under the Palestinian bridge for France to call on one of the architects of the atrocity to prepare the ground for a French stake in Palestinian life after Arafat.
Beirut and Damascus are Paris’s natural bases of operation for moves to sabotage US policies. Despite Paris-Washington cooperation in the UN Security Council against Syrian occupation of Lebanon, Chirac’s agents have been secretly conspiring with the just-resigned Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri to upset American moves to end that occupation and supported Damascus’s stooge Emil Lahoud‘s added term as president.
Syria is keen on a dominant role in the Palestinian succession, an interest that France is willing to promote on its terms. Until recently, the Assad regime kept its hand in by giving the rejectionist Palestinian Hamas, Jihad Islami, PFLP, the Popular Front-General Command and Arafat’s opposition in the PLO headed by Farouk Kaddoumi bases of operation in Damascus. Up to the present, Syria provides a conduit through the Syrian Golan for Hizballah and Iranian money, weapons, explosives and fighters to reach West Bank Palestinians terror groups.
Arafat’s decline and death presented Paris with a useful opening that French strategists believe can be readily exploited through a powerful link between Suha Arafat and Kaddoumi running through her financial adviser.
Rizk kept up his friendship with Hobeika, who over the years acted on behalf of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon. When Hobeika was murdered in a car bombing in Beirut on January 24, 2003, his ties with Damascus passed to Rizk. Those ties were channeled from the 1980s mainly through Syrian vice president Halim Khaddam.
Today, Khaddam happens to be the top Syrian official associated with the Iraqi Baathist leaders harbored by Damascus in financial as well as in other matters, including the smuggling trade run by the Arab tribes which straddle the Syrian-Iraqi border.
What do the French want to achieve?
Rizk, who lives in Paris as an apparently respectable businessman, has been Suha Arafat’s lover for years. Since moving to the French capital, the blonde 41-year-old has cultivated a taste for opulent living. Owner of a de luxe villa on the fashionable Rue Fauborg St. Honore, Suha also maintains a sumptuous suite for her business activities at the nearby Hotel Le Bristol, which bills itself as “one of the top luxury hotels in Paris and the world.” She is to be seen often with Rizk in the Bristol’s lobby and restaurants.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence sources, Rizk advised Suha on the headline- grabbing tactical moves she made during her husband’s hospitalization. He alone was privy to all the ins and outs of the negotiations for her inheritance and “pension” with the Palestinian Authority.
That intimate connection alone would have been reason enough for the French to use their old intelligence ties with Rizk and make him their point man with the new Palestinian leadership they hope to establish.
What the French want to achieve most of all is to prevent Abu Mazen, who is seen in Paris (not necessarily correctly) as pro-American, becoming Arafat’s successor as chairman of the Palestinian Authority. Failing that, Paris will claim pride of place inside the circle of influence around Abu Mazen and Abu Ala, basing its entitlement on having provided Arafat with sanctuary and hospital care in his last days. From that point of vantage, Chirac hopes to seize the initiative in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, bypassing Ariel Sharon’s unilateral disengagement plan and the Bush-sponsored Middle East roadmap.
At this stage, his prospects of success are not bad. Privately, French officials comment that both the Israeli and US peace formulae were designed to circumvent Arafat as their main obstacle. Now that he is gone, they are outdated and France has a good chance of stepping into the process with a say on the Palestinian side, particularly as the French will not confront Arafat’s successors as the Americans do with awkward demands for democracy and free elections.
Getting the Palestinian leaders under its thumb would also strengthen French influence in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. What Chirac is doing most of all is to thumb his nose at the United States as well as fellow European Union members, especially Britain, and their peace initiatives. By taking Arafat in when he was critically ill, the Chirac government broke free of its fellow Western powers and began forging an independent French Middle East policy.
France was willing to go so far as to stage a full-dress state sendoff for Arafat to Cairo on Thursday, November 11, with all the trappings of a head of state – an honor which no other Western power would have accorded a terrorist leader.