playing politics at a time of death

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    Playing politics at a time of death
    06:00 AEST Wed Nov 10 2004

    By Michael Usher
    National Nine News
    Europe correspondent reporting from Ramallah

    Sex, scandal, money, murder, poisoning, private jets, dying confessions and dynasty control.

    No, not the salacious subjects of a Hollywood drama, but the somewhat sad twists in Palestinian politics these past few days.

    A time which should be a turning point in Middle East affairs, but instead a tale more like one of Shakespeare's tragedies.

    At the centre of this latest Palestinian conflict is not an antagonistic Israeli leader, but Yasser Arafat's wife Suha. The woman described by today's Jerusalem Post as "graduating from being the Yoko Ono of Palestinian politics, to Ramallah's Lady Macbeth."

    Suha Arafat is 41, is Arafat's former economic adviser, and for the past four years has lived a luxurious life in Paris with the couple's 9-year-old daughter. When the Palestnian President looked like dying nine days ago, she arranged for him to be flown to Paris for the best treatment money could buy.

    At the time, Arafat's court of anxious successors seized the chance to evacuate the old man, and very quickly went about business in his absence. Striking politcial deals, embracing the militants, activating the powers of an un-used and un-tested Palestinian constitution. It was as if they'd been waiting for this moment for some time.

    Of course no-one would talk directly about Arafat's demise or his death. But you could tell by their tone, the spring in their step and the wry smile between takes during our interviews.

    "The Palestinian question is much bigger than one person" said Saeb Erekat during our interview in his guarded Ramallah office. The Palestinian Chief Negotiator then quickly reverted to the loyalty line. Saying he'd spoken to Suha Arafat seconds before our camera rolled, he claimed "Arafat's brain and all other functions were working just fine."

    However, in Paris, Suha Arafat was quietly playing her own politics - control of her husband, information about his condition, and his money. British reports have quoted the International Monetary Fund, estimating Arafat to be the world's 9th richest head of state, with a wealth of US$4.2 billion dollars.

    Arafat's lieutentants felt the squeeze of Suha's grip too late. Just as they did, she let go. Stopped phoning, rejected communications. No-one was to see Arafat except for her and the French doctors. And under French law, Suha gagged the medical staff from releasing only details she approved.

    When she learned Arafat's top four deputies were on their way to France, she phoned the Arabic television network Al Jazeera during their prime-time broadcast.

    "You have to realise the size of the conspiracy. I tell you that a number of contenders to the throne are coming to Paris and they are trying to bury (him) alive. He's alright, he is alive, he is going home, God is great." said Suha.

    After some delay, the Palestinian delegation arrived in Paris just as the hospital announced Yasser Arafat had slipped into a deeper coma. From their chartered jet which departed from Amman, Jordan, stepped Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, acting Palestinian Liberation Organisation leader Mahmoud Abbas, Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath and Parliamentary speaker Rawhi Fattuh.

    If you buy Suha's conspiracy theory, the Palestinians had come to stage a death-bed coup. It's more believable however, their visit is about politics and money.

    They're not that naïve to expect Arafat to whisper his final wish for a sucessor. In fact you get the impression, they don't want him nominating an heir. That role, they can fight among themselves. No, it's the body and money they want. To be seen to be at his side when Arafat finally slips, will at least help one of those men win popular Palestinian support. They want control of his burial. And they want the codes to the bank accounts.

    For all its politics, power and world importance, the saga of Yasser Arafat's final days has come down to a family feud. Who controls the funeral, which will is authentic and who gets the cash.

    Sad, like I said at the start, if it all weren't so crucial. And imagine for second how the Palestinian people are watching this unfold. Bolted into their territories by the Israelis, trying hard to keep the faith in the man who fought for their statehood all his life, a martyr to many, but a flawed idol.

    "A terrorist who failed to become a statesman. A man who could have become a Mandela for his people, but was too selfish and stubborn." according to David Horowitz, Editor of the Jerusalem Post, in our interview for National Nine News.

    And it's a point not entirely lost on Arafat's people. In Ramallah we spoke with Namir Lutfee, who's dimly lit restaurant makes fried chicken. The walls are thick with grease and the food looks caked in time. He was trying to fix a gas oven, which looked beyond repair. It had broken for the third time this month. Some loose change spilled from Arafat's Swiss and French accounts would help here. When I pressed him on his plight, and his President's wealth, Namir shrugged his shoulders. A few considered seconds passed, and then "We hope our God keeps Arafat with us forever."

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