The belief – now deeply embedded in almost all sections of the Palestinian public – that Yasser Arafat was poisoned by Israel dates from his death in November 2004. For many Palestinians, therefore, the Swiss scientists’ report that unusually high levels of deadly polonium-210 in Arafat’s corpse “moderately support” the theory that he died from poisoning will be an unsurprising confirmation of what they already thought. Paradoxically, this is one reason why the latest development may not have the decisive impact on the current, faltering peace process that may be expected at first sight.
Another is that even if the Swiss findings are regarded as prima facie evidence of foul play, they would bring no closer a conclusive answer to who was ultimately responsible. Among the circumstantial evidence cited in claims of an Israeli hand in his death is the Israeli cabinet’s formal but unspecific decision, after two suicide bombings on the same day in September 2003, to “remove” Arafat. Ariel Sharon, the Prime Minister at the time – who did once say he wished he had killed Arafat during the Israeli siege in Beirut in 1982 – is still in a coma nearly eight years after his massive stroke. But, strongly denying his involvement, his closest lieutenant at the time, Dov Weissglass, has insisted that Mr Sharon agreed immediately to a request from the Palestinian Authority for Arafat, who was ailing, to be transferred from Ramallah to the Paris military hospital where he subsequently died.
If the murder investigation that was opened by the French prosecuting authorities last August was to give credence to any of the common theories – including that a Palestinian with close access to Arafat poisoned him at the behest of the Israeli security services – there would be serious repercussions both in the region and in the international community. Until then, US Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace efforts are more likely to be disrupted by other developments – not least the continued expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem which affect the day-to-day lives of Palestinians rather more than the continuing mystery over Arafat’s death nine years ago.