Jeffrey Goldberg. Photographer: Steve Voss/Bloomberg
Jeffrey Goldberg. Photographer: Steve Voss/Bloomberg

Word comes now that an examination of the remains of Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader who died in 2004, has found “unexpected high activity” of polonium. According to Arafat’s official medical records, he suffered a fatal stroke, but this level of radioactive polonium -- 18 times the normal level -- has prompted scientists to say they “moderately” support the notion, advanced by Arafat’s widow and others, that he was poisoned to death.

Although Arafat had many enemies in the Palestinian camp (and was notably unpopular with many Arab leaders), speculation about a culprit has naturally centered on Israel. The spokesman for the Israeli foreign ministry, Yigal Palmor, disparaged the claim today, saying that it is “more soap opera than science.” He cast doubt on the neutrality of the examining scientists, and also raised a legitimate question about whether they had access to all of Arafat’s medical records. In Buzzfeed, Sheera Frenkel reports that Israel is bracing for a wave of criticism. She quotes Ran Cohen, a left-wing politician, saying that, “most Palestinians believe that we were behind his death, now their anger will be renewed.”

Israeli anxiety about such accusations, arising at a sensitive time in the negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, is understandable, but the Israeli government should remember that it was the official policy of several past Israeli leaders to try to kill Arafat, who was the head of a terrorist organization that had murdered many Israeli civilians. I had several conversations on the subject of assassinating Arafat with his principal Israeli nemesis, Ariel Sharon, and today’s report sent me back to a profile I wrote of Sharon that appeared 12 years ago in the New Yorker. The profile was published just as Sharon was running, successfully, for prime minister. Here’s what I wrote directly on the subject of assassination:

Sharon was blunt on the subject of Arafat. “He’s a murderer and a liar,” he said. “He’s an enemy. He’s a bitter enemy.” Sharon has devoted a great deal of time and energy to Arafat. By Arafat’s own count, Sharon has tried to have him killed thirteen times. Sharon wouldn’t fix on a number, but he said the opportunity had arisen repeatedly. “All the governments of Israel for many years, Labor, Likud, all of them, made an effort -- and I want to use a subtle word for the American reader -- to remove him from our society. We never succeeded.”

In other conversations with me in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Sharon, who has been in a stroke-induced coma for more than seven years, did not resort to euphemism. Once, he described to me how Israel would have been better off had Arafat been killed by the Israeli army in the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, an invasion that Sharon led. It was, he said, “a missed opportunity.”

I’m still trying to figure out exactly why Sharon -- who was, of course, prime minister when Arafat died -- would have wanted the Palestinian leader dead at the particular moment he died. (There are all kinds of reasonable theories, which I hope to visit later). But it should not be treated as news that Sharon wanted Arafat dead, or that he tried, at different points, to kill him. Maybe this whole autopsy drama is a farce, and maybe Arafat did, in fact, die of natural causes. Maybe he was killed by someone else. Or maybe Sharon, who lamented to me his failure to kill Arafat, actually wound up succeeding.