Jonathan Kay, Managing Editor for Comment at the National Post, takes a closer look at the recently opened French inquiry into the 2004 death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Kay is also the author of Among the Truthers: A Journey Through America’s Growing Conspiracist Underground , a foray into the psychology of conspiracy theorists:
On Tuesday, French prosecutors announced that they had opened an inquiry into the 2004 death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Specifically, they will investigate the suspicions of Suha Arafat, Arafat’s widow, that her husband was murdered by a polonium-equipped Israeli assassin.
It’s tempting to think that the investigation finally will put to rest conspiracy theories about Israel’s involvement in Arafat’s death. But history counsels otherwise.
French prosecutors open murder probe into Yasser Arafat’s death
Yasser Arafat’s widow asks for French probe into her husband’s death after complaint of ‘assassination’
Consider the case of Diana, Princess of Wales. Since the assassination of JFK, there is perhaps no single death more intensely studied by hundreds of investigators on both sides of the English Channel than that of the lady n?e Diana Spencer.
In fact, the only investigation needed was a blood test on deceased driver Henri Paul, who was at three times the legal alcohol limit at the time he plowed Dodi Fayed’s Mercedes S280 into a column supporting Paris’ Pont de l’Alma tunnel.
Yet the plain truth didn’t stop Dodi’s father, Mohamed Al-Fayed, from spinning out all sorts of conspiracy theories primarily involving MI6. (He shut up about the subject a few years ago, but only for the sake of his family, he made clear.) The most popular and enduring variant of Diana conspiracism has it that she was pregnant at the time of the crash, and her murder was arranged in order to ensure that Muslim blood would not be permitted to pollute the Royal bloodline, even a dead-end stub of it. More esoteric versions involve Israel’s Mossad, on the theory that (as one conspiracist web site puts it) “Diana [might] have visited Palestine as a mother to a half-Arabic child and as a wife to an Arab man. Imagine the masses cheering Diana, embracing her as one of their’s.”
For students of conspiracy theories, two lessons jump out from the Diana case study.
First: Conspiracy theories are never extinguished by official investigations. Instead, the conspiracy theorists just trace bigger and bigger concentric circles around the original imagined plot, drawing the investigators themselves into the ever-growing cast of evil-doers. Those who believe LBJ killed JFK will always believe LBJ killed JFK, just as those who believe the Mossad killed Diana won’t be dissuaded by any mere French or English investigation.
Second: Conspiracy theorists have a special fondness for Jews, and cloak-and-dagger Zionist Jews in particular. The idea of modern-day Protocols-of-Zion types slipping radioactive poison into Arafat’s coffee fit right in with anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that have been around since the Middle Ages, in which skulking Jews were imagined to go from town to town poisoning wells, or siphoning off the blood of little children for their Passover matzos. (Amazingly, this latter conspiracy theory is still popular in the Middle East, and was even featured credulously in a 1983 book written by Syria’s former defense minister, Mustafa Tlas, The Matzah of Zion. He stands by it to this day.)
Real conspiracies do exist, of course, especially in the Middle East. And we should all admit that the Israelis aren’t above a little cloak-and-dagger when it suits them. In 1996, Israel blew the head off of Hamas bombmaker Yahya Ayyash by getting him to take a call on a cell phone containing 15 grams of RDX explosive. And in 1997, Mossad agents (carrying Canadian passports) injected poison into the ear of Hamas commander Khaled Mashal, then based in Jordan. (He lived, and bedevils the Israelis still.)
But poisoning Yasser Arafat? That wouldn’t be Israel’s style in part because they must have known that their involvement would be suspected immediately (as it was), and that Arafat’s body eventually would get the Princess Diana treatment. Polonium-210, the alleged poison at play, would be a risky way to get the job done, since its half-life is four-and-half months. Moreover, according to a spokesman for the Institute of Radiation Physics, Arafat’s symptoms on his deathbed “were not consistent with polonium-210” which causes victims to waste away in the identifiably long, agonizing fashion of Alexander Litvinenko back in 2006. And in any case, Arafat was largely an isolated, enfeebled and spent force by 2004: The Israelis had more to lose by killing him than by letting him live.
Still, there is always a grain of truth to every conspiracy theory. Earlier this year, Al Jazeera asked the Institute of Radiation Physics in Lausanne, Switzerland, to test personal items from Yasser Aarafat, provided by his surviving wife and those items did indeed betray heightened levels of Polonium. Recall that Arafat had plenty of enemies who weren’t Jews: the folks at Hamas, for instance, who began assassinating Arafat’s one-time Fatah henchmen in Gaza shortly after his death, and who now have the run of the place.
Cui bono (“To whose benefit?”) is the mantra of the conspiracy theorist. I don’t count myself among their ranks. But if I did, I’d be more inclined to look for conspirators in Ramallah than Tel Aviv.
— Jonathan Kay is Managing Editor for Comment at the National Post, and a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @jonkay.