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Arafat's Bout with...Polonium?

We may never know with complete certainty whether the still unexplained health crisis that suddenly did in Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was due to natural or unnatural causes. But the recent discovery of polonium on Arafat’s clothing, added to a considerable body of circumstantial evidence, has increased an already widespread suspicion that Israel was involved in his sudden demise.

Last week, Al Jazeera reported findings by pathologists in Switzerland that Arafat may have been poisoned by polonium; they based this observation on their examination of parts of Arafat’s clothing provided by his widow, Suha. She has now asked that his body be exhumed and examined.

Polonium is the lethal radioactive substance that was used in the high-profile assassination of Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian spy, in London in 2006. John Croft, a retired British radiation expert who worked on the Litvinenko case, said a dose large enough to kill would probably have to come from a government with either civilian or military nuclear capabilities.

Suha Arafat says that, after her husband died, she stored some of his clothing in her lawyer’s office before making them available to the Swiss. Nevertheless, there are sure to be important questions relating to the chain of custody. Doubts on that score could be allayed IF the necessary permissions for a carefully monitored exhumation are granted and IF suspicious traces of polonium are found on Arafat’s body, which is interred in a grave in Ramallah on the West Bank.

A radiological science expert at University College London, Derek Hill, has said that, despite the natural decay of the substance after almost eight years, an autopsy should be able to tell “with pretty high confidence” whether Arafat had polonium in his body when he died.

A credible exhumation/examination undertaking, however, would require the cooperation of Israel (itself a suspect) and of Palestinian National Authority President, Mahmoud Abbas, who many believe was himself complicit, at least in covering up what happened to Arafat.

In other words, there are many possible slips between cup and lip — that is, there is no guarantee that more definitive physical evidence will emerge and even if it does, there is virtually no prospect that it will be undisputed.

This iffy prognosis takes into account how little is known about polonium poisoning, as well as the entirely predictable challenges by scientists, some of whom can be expected to be serving political agendas. Polonium aside, the upsurge in speculation on the cause of Arafat’s death has already injected still more poison into the atmosphere of relations between the Palestinians and Israelis.

The latest news has already fueled unrest in the West Bank and could conceivably lead to more violence. On the other hand, almost eight years have gone by since Arafat’s death, and the great majority of Palestinians have long since concluded that Israel was responsible for his demise. Besides, Arafat had been losing popularity among Palestinians even before then.

Just the same, when a major world leader dies under suspicious circumstances, it seems worth trying to discern what facts one can before speculating on what actually happened.

What is Known

-Arafat seemed in good health until he fell suddenly ill on Oct. 12, 2004.

-Doctors in Lausanne, Switzerland, and elsewhere have ruled out a range of rumored causes of death, based on Arafat’s original medical file provided by his wife.

-The director of Lausanne’s University Center of Legal Medicine, Patrice Mangin, M.D., a forensic pathologist, has said: “There was not liver cirrhosis, apparently no traces of cancer, no leukemia. Concerning HIV, AIDS – there was no sign, and the symptomology was not suggesting these things.”

-The Swiss pathologists had hoped to study the blood and urine samples taken from Arafat while he was at Percy Military Hospital in France. But when Suha attempted to obtain them, she was told that those samples had been destroyed. Adding to the confusion, a senior French military doctor has told the Associated Press, “Samples taken in the hospital remain in the hospital.”

-The suspicions of Arafat’s longtime personal physician, Dr. Ashraf al Kurdi, zoomed immediately after Arafat’s death, when Abbas blocked an autopsy. In an interview in early 2005, Kudri called Arafat’s death “stealth assassination.” Kudri examined Arafat on day 16 of his 29-day illness and noted what he believed to be signs of poisoning — a reddish patch on his face and skin with a metallic yellow coloring, as well as severe weight loss.

-In an interview five months after Arafat died, Kudri said: “If someone (of the Islamic faith) dies of unknown causes, it is mandatory to have an autopsy — mandatory. … I suspect Arafat died of a ‘killing poison’ … The death was due to this.”

-Alexander Litvinenko, the former Russian intelligence officer mentioned above, who became a harsh critic of the Russian government is the first person known to have been deliberately killed by plutonium poisoning. Hospitalized in London in November 2006, he died three weeks later. Traces of polonium were found in his teacup.

-In a blog on Jan. 2, 2007, journalist Stephen Lendman (to whom I am indebted for some of the data on this wrap-up list) commented on a book titled Ariel Sharon: An Intimate Portrait” by Uri Dan, a confidant of Ariel Sharon. Dan accused the former Israeli Prime Minister of poisoning Arafat, with the prior approval of President George W. Bush.

-Lendman also notes that 14 months before Arafat died, the Israeli security cabinet decided to “remove” the Palestinian leader, using deliberately vague language that could mean expulsion or killing.

Ehud Olmert (then Israeli vice prime minister under Sharon) went public telling Israeli radio after the cabinet decision: “The question is – How are we going to do it (remove him, that is)? Expulsion is certainly one of the options, and killing is also one of the options.” Other Israeli officials rang changes on this theme, but Olmert was the closest confidant of Sharon to state that Arafat might be killed.

-Dov Weisglass, former chief of staff to Prime Minister Sharon, insisted in a radio interview Thursday that “Israeli officials never considered killing Arafat.”

-Israeli officials are making a major effort to belittle the Swiss findings. Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor has said, “Making up conspiracy theories based on pretend evidence is so ludicrous that it befits the comedy channel and not a news channel.” (Jon Stewart take note.)

Israel’s PR Counteroffensive

Like their official Israeli counterparts, Israeli and American pro-Israel commentators have been coming out of the woodwork to discredit the polonium story.

Hussein Ibish, one of the neocons’ favorite Arab commentators, quickly placed an article in Foreign Policy in which he dismisses the “orgy of conspiratorial theorizing” as “utterly baseless.”  In what may be the most unkindest cut of all, Ibish compares the Al Jazeera editors to Glenn Beck and his “conspiracy-minded talk show.”

My personal favorite, though, is a Jerusalem Post article by Yaakov Lappin, titled “Polonium found on Arafat’s clothing was planted,” quoting at length a Dr. Ely Karmon.  According to Lappin, Karmon is “a specialist in chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear terrorism, working at Israel’s Interdisciplinary Center of Herzliya’s Institute for Counterterrorism.”

Dr. Karmon claims that the half-life of the polonium in question would make it impossible for it to have been discovered at such high levels if it had been used to kill Arafat eight years ago.

And Karmon should know: he holds a B.A. in English and French Culture from Hebrew University in Jerusalem, a license in International Relations and a license in Bantu Languages from universities in Paris, and a PhD in political science from Haifa University. His bio on the Herzliya Web site says nothing about where Dr. Karmon acquired expertise related to chemistry, biology, radiology, or nuclear matters.

The Supremes to Bush to Sharon

Who is primarily responsible for Arafat’s demise? Ultimately, you could say the same Supreme Court that gave the 2000 election to George W. Bush with his flair for sizing up people and his jaunty compassion-deficit disorder.

Experience showed President Bush to be an impressionable sort with a roulette penchant for putting great premium on initial impressions and latching onto people believed to be kindred souls – be it Russian President Vladimir Putin (trust at first sight), or Ariel Sharon.

As for Sharon, retired Gen. Brent Scowcroft, who was national security adviser to President George H. W. Bush, did not like what he was seeing under the second President Bush. A master of discretion with the media, Scowcroft nevertheless saw fit to tell the London Financial Times on Oct. 14, 2004 that Sharon had Bush “mesmerized” and “wrapped around his little finger.”

At the time, Scowcroft was chair of the prestigious President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board and thus well positioned to watch the U.S.-Israeli relationship unfold. He was summarily fired after making the Sharon-Bush comments.

George W. Bush first met Sharon in 1998, when the Texas governor was taken on a tour of the Middle East by Matthew Brooks, then executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition. Sharon was foreign minister and took Bush on a helicopter tour over the Israeli occupied territories. An Aug. 3, 2006, McClatchy wire story by Ron Hutcheson quotes Matthew Brooks:

“If there’s a starting point for George W. Bush’s attachment to Israel, it’s the day in late 1998, when he stood on a hilltop where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount, and, with eyes brimming with tears, read aloud from his favorite hymn, ‘Amazing Grace.’ He was very emotional. It was a tear-filled experience. He brought Israel back home with him in his heart. I think he came away profoundly moved.”

Bush made a highly revealing reference to that trip at the very first meeting of his National Security Council (NSC) on Jan. 30, 2001. After announcing he would abandon the decades-long role of honest broker between Israelis and Palestinians and would tilt pronouncedly toward Israel, Bush said he had decided to let Sharon do whatever he saw fit to do.

At that point Bush brought up his trip to Israel with the Republican Jewish Coalition and the flight over Palestinian camps, but there was no trace of concern for the Palestinians. In A Pretext for War, James Bamford quotes Bush: “Looked real bad down there,” he said with a frown. Then he said it was time to end America’s efforts in the region. “I don’t see much we can do over there at this point,” he said.

As for Yasser Arafat, he quickly became bête noire for Bush, and Vice President Dick Cheney, as well as for Sharon. And the Israeli Prime Minister played Bush and Cheney like a violin and viola. A few months before Arafat’s death, George W. Bush arbitrarily withdrew U.S. recognition of Arafat and the PLO as the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.”

On July 18, 2004, in an interview in Le Figaro, Bush dismissed Arafat as a negotiating partner, saying, “The real problem is that there is no leadership that is able to say ‘help us establish a state and we will fight terror and answer the needs of the Palestinians.’”

That departure by Bush was criticized by the European Union and Russia, who were part of the quartet leading negotiations between Israel and the PLO. Sharon had already said what Bush said.

Irony in Arafat’s Death

On many levels, Arafat was very cooperative with Israel and the U.S. , which is why he became so deeply despised by many Palestinians. They saw him as a sellout to Israel for going along with the land-grab sham (also known as “the peace process”), enriching himself and his cohorts in the process, and establishing a narrow, repressive and authoritarian regime.

Ironically, Arafat usually jumped when Israel said jump, but he wasn’t able to deliver anything to his people, because the Israelis were not really interested in anything like the peace that most Palestinians envisage.

So Tel Aviv had a malleable puppet, but also an increasingly restive Palestinian population tired of no progress/reforms, worsening poverty, a growing popularity/respectability of relatively non-corrupt groups like Hamas and others opposed to Arafat, who had outlived his usefulness.

Here, with some dates highlighted, is a short chronology of important pre-Arafat-disposal events:

On Oct. 14, 2004, the usually taciturn Brent Scowcroft tells the Financial Times:  “Sharon just has him [George W. Bush] wrapped around his little finger; I think the president is mesmerized.” By then it was well known that Bush agreed with Sharon that Arafat had to be replaced. How much the Bush White House was aware beforehand of the circumstances of Arafat’s demise is not known — yet.

On Oct. 25, 2004, Arafat falls seriously ill from as yet unknown causes.  He died on Nov. 11, 2004 of the identical unknown causes. Shortly thereafter, Arafat’s relatives and friends — and countless others — speculated that he died an “unnatural” death.

It is well known that Israel’s Mossad has a branch of scientists and operatives who are experts in lethal poisons (shades of the Soviet KGB’s “Mokryie Dela” [wet affairs] department). And, as is well known, the operatives in Israel’s Knocking-Off-Iranian-Scientists Branch have been chalking up merit commendations, so to speak, over recent years.

Senior Israeli officials take considerable pride in this “wet-affairs” capability, and have taken to brag about it. On Jan. 11, 2012, for example, Israeli armed forces chief Benny Gantz warned Parliament: “2012 is expected to be a critical year for Iran,” mentioning the nuclear issue and “continued international pressure” on Iran. Still on Iran, Gantz made a point of adding “things that happen to it unnaturally.”

Less than a day after Gantz’s warning, a 32-year-old Iranian scientist, father of two, was killed by assassins on motorcycles, an attack that the Associated Press called “almost certainly the work of Israel.”

Last November, when Iranian Revolutionary Guards Gen. Hassan Moghadam, one of the driving forces behind Iran’s advanced ballistic missile program, was killed in a large explosion, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak commented publicly the next day that he would like to see more such explosions in Iran.

Time magazine cited a Western intelligence source as saying Israel’s Mossad was behind the explosion at the Iranian military base. “Don’t believe the Iranians that it was an accident,” the official said. The source added that more acts of sabotage were in the works as part of an effort to stop Iran’s nuclear program. “There are more bullets in the magazine,” he added.

And More Polonium Too?

Israeli investigative journalist Michael Karpin wrote about polonium in his 2006 book, The Bomb in the Basement: How Israel Went Nuclear and What that Means for the World. Karpin reveals that exposure to polonium, the radioactive substance used to poison Litvinenko, killed several Israeli scientists a few decades ago.

These Weizmann Institute scientists were exposed to the same dangerous substance that was found at a number of London sites Litvinenko had visited, as well as in three British Airways planes that flew the Moscow-London route.

According to Karpin, in 1957 a leak was discovered at a Weizmann Institute laboratory operated by Israel’s Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). The Israeli authorities did not admit that the leak and the deaths were connected, but people close to one fatal casualty confirmed that the state took responsibility for the accident and compensated his family.

Having learned how lethal polonium can be, it seems clear in retrospect that Israeli scientists set out to learn all they could about polonium poisoning. From Litvinenko’s demise it seems clear the Russians have had a parallel program. Or, maybe … do you suppose…?

Israel runs a major defense research institute specializing in biology, medicinal chemistry and environmental science at Nes Ziona, 20 miles south of Tel Aviv; it is called the Israel Institute for Biological Research. With 350 employees, including 150 scientists, it is suspected of also developing biological toxins for use by Israeli intelligence for assassinations. This is probably where Israel conducts its research on polonium.

More bullets in the magazine; polonium/“stealth assassination”; drones with “hellfire” missiles — whatever. Life (the life of some, that is) is cheap. And assassinations are us. O Tempora, O Mores!

A version of this essay first appeared on Consortium News