[N.B.: (1) This article was written two days before and appeared one day before Arafat's death on Nov. 11, 2004 in Clamart, France. (2) A "bedroom farce" is a form of light comedy based on improbable romantic situations.]
It is hard to find words adequate to describe the malevolent 40-year long career of the world's longest reigning terrorist (it began in January 1965), a man who fouled his nest in Jordan, Lebanon, and then in the West Bank and Gaza, a moral monster who fooled the world into thinking he had reformed (remember that Nobel Peace Prize?). Yet his farcical death-scene provides perhaps the appropriate coda to an unworthy life.
The mise-en-scène is as preposterous as what came before, only much funnier. First, there is the wife, Suha, a Greek Orthodox convert to Islam who nonetheless continued to observe Christian holidays and now bellows out "Allahu Akbar" as she spends a reputed $100,000 a month living the good life in Paris. Then there are the long-suffering minions, hoping to get their day in the sun, free at last of their irascible, unpredictable, domineering leader. Finally, there are the hapless French politicians, stung by their own stupidity in sending a military plane to Jordan to retrieve Arafat to Paris, then treating him like royalty (including a courtesy visit by President Jacques Chirac), only to find themselves parties to his death-bed antics.
Here are some of the specifics; as they say, you couldn't make this stuff up.
On Nov. 7, French foreign minister Michel Barnier told the LCI television channel that Arafat was alive, but "I would say he is in a state that is very complicated, very serious and stable at the time we are speaking." Asked if Arafat was already dead, Barnier memorably answered: "I wouldn't say that." The foreign minister of a major country, supposedly a serious man, has satisfyingly been made to look like an idiot.
Arafat in his last days, surrounded by minions.
What Arafat might be dying of has been conspicuously not mentioned, leading to many speculations. Of course, some Palestinians have hatched a conspiracy theory about Israel poisoning Arafat. The PLO's news service, WAFA, with a straight face demands an inquiry into the exact manner of his poisoning. "We have the right to know the type, the source of the poison as well as the antidote and how to get it," writes WAFA's political editor. More interesting, though, is the plausible thesis that the "president" is dying of AIDS, especially given his reputed pre-nuptial activities. David Frum elaborates on this hypothesis in National Review Online:
We know he has a blood disease that is depressing his immune system. We know that he has suddenly dropped considerable weight – possibly as much as 1/3 of all his body weight. We know that he is suffering intermittent mental dysfunction. What does this sound like?
Former Romanian intelligence chief Ion Pacepa tells in his very interesting memoirs that the Ceaucescu regime taped Arafat's orgies with his body guards. If true, Arafat would a great deal to conceal from his people and his murderously anti-homosexual supporters in the Islamic world.
Before airlifting Arafat to Paris, French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier promised to "stand by" him. Was that why Arafat chose to be treated in France rather in any of the fraternal Arab countries that supposedly support his movement – because he could trust the French to protect his intimate secrets?
Meanwhile, the Israelis, when not lying low, give out that Arafat is "clinically dead."
Then there is this unique paragraph of Steven Erlanger in the New York Times:
Mr. Arafat's condition was described as unchanged by a spokesman for the French military hospital in Paris where Mr. Arafat is variously said to be in an irreversible coma, a reversible coma or no coma at all. The rumor of Saturday [Nov. 6] was that Mr. Arafat had sat up and waved at his doctors; the latest rumor on Sunday is that he has suffered liver failure - denied by Mr. [Nabil] Shaath - and is being kept alive on machines while his aides and his wife fight over his burial place and his bank accounts.
The allusion to a "fight over his burial place and his bank accounts"? There is widespread suspicion that Suha and her allies are pretending Arafat is still alive so that they have time to tussle with the Israeli authorities over getting him buried in Jerusalem and also plunder Arafat's bank accounts, reputed to be as much as billions of dollars. A "senior Palestinian banker" is quoted noting that Arafat alone knows the numbers of his secret accounts and these could well accompany him to the grave. "If the numbers die with him, then the Swiss bankers and other bankers worldwide will be rubbing their hands in glee."
Suha Arafat (left) with her friend Hillary Clinton.
It's no wonder they are angling to dispose of the corpse in Jerusalem, considering the state of Arafat's family burial plot in Khan Yunis, Gaza. Agence France-Presse vividly describes this decrepit site (the French original is even more colorful):
Unkempt, ankle deep in rubbish and the air thick with flies from the stinking market next door, the Arafat family plot could not be a more inauspicious burial place for the icon of Palestinian nationhood. …
Less than 100 square metres with two dozen tombs already in pride of place, a minimum of mourners would be able to crowd the site, stumbling over the roughshod ground to pay their last respects. Hidden behind a cement wall and accessible through a solitary white, metal door encrusted with mud, nothing could be less imposing or more humiliating for a man who is now unlikely to achieve his dream of a Palestinian state with its capital in Jerusalem.
Bin liners, a child's T-shirt and a traditional red keffiyeh (headdress of the type favoured by Arafat) are ground into the dust. Empty crisp bags, milk cartons, plastic bottles and broken glass are strewn across the burnt grass. Overgrown scarlet and white bougainvillia do nothing to sweeten the nauseating stench of rotting fruit and meat, laced with dung from half-dead donkeys tied up in the adjacent market.
Laundry hanging from a run-down high-rise flat flaps over the grave of Arafat's sister, Yussra al-Qidwa, who was laid to rest in August last year, alongside their father.
To the prospect of Arafat forever gracing the Holy City, Israel's justice minister Tommy Lapid said on Nov. 5, in perhaps the best one-liner of the whole sordid affair, that Arafat "will not be buried in Jerusalem because Jerusalem is the city where Jewish kings are buried and not Arab terrorists."
When four of Arafat's flunkies, including Ahmed Qurei, his pretend "prime minister," no longer could bear Suha's capricious ways, they announced a trip to Paris to hear directly from the doctors on the state of the great man's health. Suha responded viciously, calling up Al Jazeera television early on Nov. 8 and accusing the quartet of engaging in a "conspiracy" against Arafat. "Let it be known to the honest people of Palestine that a gang of would-be inheritors are coming to Paris," she screamed in a segment Al-Jazeera aired repeatedly. Using Arafat's nom de guerre, she warned: "You have to understand the scope of this conspiracy. I tell you, they are trying to bury alive Abu Ammar." She also added for good measure, "He is all right and he is going home."
To make matters yet more interesting, rumors have swirled around Arafat's military hospital that he twice refused to speak to Mahmoud Abbas, the PLO's number-two, by telephone and instead has on the quiet made Farouq Kaddumi his successor. Who, you might ask, is Farouq Kaddumi? Erlanger explains that he is a founder of the Palestine Liberation Organization who
rejected the Oslo accords and refused to return with Mr. Arafat to the West Bank and Gaza. He still lives in Tunis, where he retains the title of P.L.O. foreign minister, despite the fact that Mr. Shaath holds the Palestinian Authority's title of minister for external affairs
Got that? The farce is complete, and Arafat dies as wretchedly as he lived.
July 26, 2009 update: Nearly five years have passed, but new episodes keep getting added to Arafat's final bedroom farce. Ali Waked of Yedi'ot Aharonot summarizes the latest antics:
Accusations that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and others were part of a plot to poison deceased Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat are shaking the PA. According to reports on Sunday, the late Palestinian leader's widow, Suha Arafat, broke out in tears after being forced to deny any knowledge of the alleged scheme.
The media storm started two weeks ago when the number two PLO figure, Farouk Kaddoumi, claimed in a Jordanian press conference that Abbas together with PA security chief Mohammad Dahlan collaborated in an Israeli-orchestrated plot to poison Arafat. Kaddoumi asserted that Arafat had shown him documentation proving that Abbas and Hamas leaders met with top American and Israeli officials on the issue.
Fatah quickly went on the offensive against Kaddoumi and his statements, even pointing an angry finger at Jordan and the al-Jazeera news network for covering the affair. Arafat's widow, Suha, told a Turkish newspaper last week that her deceased husband showed her the minutes of the same Israeli-American-Palestinian meeting of which Kaddoumi spoke. According to her, the ex-leader also said that he feared for his life in light of Dahlan's and Abbas' allegedly peculiar behavior.
Saudi newspaper Okaz quoted Palestinian sources claiming that Abbas' office, acting upon direct orders from the president, threatened to revoke Suha Arafat's monthly PA salary should she decline to deny what the statements she made to the Turkish newspaper. According to the report, Suha, currently living in Malta near her brother, who is serving as Palestinian ambassador in the country, cried when she learned of the threats. Pressure from Ramallah brought her to read a script to the media sent to her by Abbas' office denying that she had any knowledge of an assassination plot and attacking Kaddoumi for his statements against the PA.