Poised for Arafat’s Passing

The latest flurry of diplomatic, political and military activity surrounding the Palestinian question is the product of the sharp decline in Yasser Arafat’s health. A tense waiting game is now in progress, one surface symptom of which is Ahmed Qureia’s hesitant hand on the reins of government. Monday, October 13, he led his emergency cabinet in its first working session while indicating he would not stay on the job beyond a month. Nabil Shaath said a new Palestinian government would be presented in mid-November. At the same time, the Saudi paper Al Watan reported the Bush administration is seeking to set up an “alternative” Palestinian leadership to govern until elections can be held.
On the Israeli side, the calamitous October 4 suicide bombing in Haifa that murdered 20 Israelis was succeeded by the first Israeli air raid over Syria in 32 years – instead of the usual direct assault on a Palestinian target.
However, Sunday, October 12, the IDF wound up a three-day operation to destroy the tunnels in the Rafah tip of the Gaza Strip and so wipe out the principal weapons feed-lines to Palestinian terrorists from Egyptian Sinai. The raid by Israeli tanks, backed by armored bulldozers and helicopter gunships, reportedly killed three armed Palestinians and five civilians and destroyed more than a hundred buildings. It also uncovered the flow of increasingly heavy weapons secreted into the Gaza Strip, including Katyusha surface rockets and traces of imported anti-air missiles, through the tangle of tunnels snaking under surface structures in the Rafah camp adjoining the frontier.
This massive supply of heavy hardware, while clearly directed towards escalating Palestinian terrorist bloodshed, is also destined to further churn up Palestinian infighting the prospect of which looms large as the Palestinian leader sinks and rivals for the succession take their places in the arena.
Given Arafat’s fragile health – he is said to be hors de combat for days on end – it is not surprising that Abu Ala is reluctant to commit himself as government leader. Loath to tackle him and be blamed for bringing on his demise, he has swallowed Arafat’s stooge, Hakam Balawi, an old PLO hack, as interior minister in charge of security in place of Gen. Nasser Yousef. Arafat has thus been left clutching Palestinian security forces to his chest up to his last gasp.
Abu Ala is likewise at pains to avoid any taint of being Washington’s man in Ramallah for fear of compromising his claim to the succession in popular Palestinian eyes against such hopefuls as former internal security minister Mohamed Dahlan, Arafat’s adviser Jibril Rajub – or even Abu Mazen who lasted only four months as prime minister in the face of Arafat’s machinations.
Given all these considerations, Abu Ala is walking on eggs.
The Israeli Labor opposition chose this moment to put its two cents into the hurly-burly attending Arafat’s waning days. Party leader Avraham Mitzna and the constant peacenik Yossi Bailin claim in Amman to have hammered out with a group of Palestinians led by former ministers Yasser Abed Rabbo, Nabil Kassis and Hisham Abdel Razeq what they call the “Geneva Accord”. This document consists essentially of regurgitated scraps of old deals for which Bailin never found acceptance on any side. The “peace plan” has won generous media exposure. It has also trod on many toes; government officials as well as two Labor former prime ministers, Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak, have hotly attacked the group for overstepping their mandate and acting without authority. But MItzna, Bailin and their ally Avraham Burg – whose party was twice rejected by the Israeli voter, then by its own rank and file and finally by most of its international supporters from Washington to Paris – are basking in the publicity gained by their initiative.
In Amman, Bailin declared triumphantly that the “Geneva Accords” are proof that Israel has a Palestinian negotiating partner, disregarding the fact that the partner looks like being near death’s door. The Israeli leftwingers, hoping to hoist the 1993 Oslo Accords banners over Geneva next month, will find that as Arafat approaches his end, his would-be successors, the “alternative” Palestinian leadership, will not have much time for Israeli opposition politicians, however well-intentioned. They will be too busy talking turkey with US secretary of state Colin Powell, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and the special American Middle East envoys, Elliot Abrams and John Wolf. Representing the White House, these American officials will, together with Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, be calling the tune after Arafat’s passing.
The joint Bailin-Abd Rabbo mission to Cairo Monday, October 13, to bring president Hosni Mubarak tidings of a “historic” breakthrough was likewise inopportune. Mubarak is not on his deathbed, but he spends as little as two hours a day at his desk while quietly handing the reins of office over to his 42-year old son, Gemal, aka Jimmy, who has far more pressing matters to attend to than yet another Israeli-Palestinian peace castle in the sky.
At Palestinian headquarters in Ramallah, the atmosphere is grim. While fearing to cross the ailing leader, Arafat’s close associates are stealing away. As one senior diplomat said to debkafile this week: “It reminds me of one of those dying monarchs you see on medieval paintings whose courtiers are depicted fleeing the death chamber covering their eyes with their hands so as not to see the coming of the angel of death.”
Arafat’s ill health was first revealed byDEBKA-Net-Weekly Issue 128, which on October 3 reported the 74-year old Palestinian leader had suffered a series of heart attacks. Palestinian sources in his office described the first attack as mild, but said it was succeeded by seizures that approached severe myocardial infarction. In a show of bravado, he forbade his scared aides to call a doctor and swore them to silence about his condition. Nonetheless, word reached Jordan’s King Abdullah at Camp David during his visit with President George W. Bush from Thursday, September 18 to Saturday, September 20. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources reveal that Arafat’s condition was a leading topic of their conversations.
On his return home to Amman, the monarch telephoned Arafat to commiserate with him and offer to fly his own personal physician Dr. Ashraf al-Kurdi, with a cardiologist – both senior directors at Amman’s central military hospital – to Arafat by helicopter. The king vouched for the cardiologist who examined him periodically as well. He also offered to send over advanced diagnostic equipment with the two doctors.
At first, Arafat turned the Jordanian king down. But in a second telephone conversation, on Sunday, September 28, he agreed to be examined by the two physicians, after Abdullah convinced him that rumors of the heart attacks were bound to leak out and he would do well to arm himself with a specialists’ report. The king also made himself responsible for any treatment Arafat might require.
debkafile‘s military sources reveal that Monday, September 29, a Jordanian military helicopter flew the royal physician, accompanied by the heart specialist and diagnostic equipment, to Arafat’s Ramallah headquarters. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources, Arafat underwent a four-hour examination after which he was diagnosed – the report was rushed immediately to Abdullah – as having suffered a series of heart attacks, each of which was capable of inducing a stroke. He was advised to retain a fully-staffed medical team on call 24 hours a day in case he was struck down again. The doctors found him severely debilitated and suffering a progressive breakdown of his internal systems.
Abdullah offered to bring him over to the Amman hospital for constant care, but Arafat refused, declaring he would die in his quarters “as a martyr”.
debkafile‘s military sources add that the Israel armed forces’ partial mobilization of reserves in the last few days, explained officially as necessary to meet the exigencies of rising terrorist threats, is in fact a precautionary step in readiness for Arafat’s last days. Both American and Israeli officials estimate that his passing will bring on violent eruptions in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and the Palestinian camps in Syria and Lebanon, which may take several days to subdue. It is also taken into account that Arafat may have instructed his terrorist chiefs to mark his death with a series of devastating suicide strikes to demonstrate that Palestinian violence outlives his death.
Israeli will invest substantial resources in restraining these violent outbreaks and foiling any acts of terror. Washington will be more anxious than ever to lay hands on Saddam Hussein, thereby ascertaining that the two most forceful impediments to the Bush administration’s Middle East strategy are removed from its path at the same time.

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