Arafat's French connection
by: Lisa Bryant - Last updated: 2004-11-02
Palestinian officials say Yasser Arafat's health has improved since Friday, when he arrived in France for treatment for a still-mysterious illness.
In some ways the choice to treat Mr Arafat at a Paris-area military hospital comes as no surprise.
Nobody disputes the fact that France has excellent hospitals and doctors capable of treating Mr. Arafat. But that may not be the only reason why the Palestinian leader is undergoing medical tests at a military hospital in the Paris suburb of Clamart.
Mr Arafat's wife Suha lives in Paris with the couple's nine-year old daughter. And Mr. Arafat's own ties to France stretch back decades. Mr Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization established its first Western office in Paris, in the 1970s.
When Israeli soldiers invaded Lebanon in 1982 to crush the PLO, French soldiers helped Mr. Arafat flee from Beirut to Greece. The PLO established new headquarters in Tunis, Tunisia, until Mr Arafat returned to the Palestinian territories in 1994, after a 26-year absence.
In 1989, Mr Arafat made his first official visit to the West. Not surprisingly, French analysts like Alain Dieckhoff say, the Palestinian leader headed to Paris, where he met with former Socialist president Francois Mitterrand.
Mr Dieckhoff is an expert on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the Center for the Study of International Relations, in Paris. He says relations between France and Mr Arafat stretch back about 30 years, and have remained close under both conservative and leftist French governments.
Indeed, relations have been so close that Mr Arafat once called President Jacques Chirac his doctor who could fix his political problems. One of Mr Arafat's last trips to Paris was in 2000, to attend four-way talks to end renewed bloodshed in the Middle East, which also included top officials from Israel, the United States and France. A year later, the Israeli government confined him to his office in the West Bank, where he remained until last week.
Today, both Israel and the United States refuse to do business with Mr Arafat. The Bush administration has accused Mr. Arafat of mismanagement and criticized him for failing to end Palestinian violence. It believes he is incapable of leading Palestinians to statehood.
But France, like a number of European countries, continues to maintain diplomatic ties with Mr Arafat.
Mr. Dieckhoff, the Middle East expert, says that France has not forgotten that Mr Arafat was elected by Palestinians to be their leader. If you want to negotiate with the Palestinians, he says, you need to have a dialogue with Mr Arafat.
The dialogue between France and Mr Arafat has continued during the Palestinian leader's three-year confinement in his West Bank office. In June, French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier paid a visit to Mr Arafat's Ramallah quarters, becoming the first top Western official to do so in more than a year.
Charles Saint Prot is the director of the Observatory of Political Studies in Paris. He also wrote a biography of Mr Arafat in 1990. He says ties between Mr Arafat and Paris fit well with France's overall policy in the Middle East, where it maintains close ties with a number of Arab leaders.
Mr Saint Prot says France continues to have a high-profile presence in the Arab Middle East, and it is generally well liked in the Arab world.
The estimated five-million Muslims living in France, mostly ethnic-Arabs, largely approve of its Middle East diplomacy as well. That includes Jamal Larouad, a 43-year-old Moroccan who owns a shwarma shop in northern Paris.
Mr Larouad says it is good Mr Arafat is being treated in France. For one thing, he says, French medical care is very good, and for another it makes sense he is here, since France plays such a prominent role in the Middle East.
Such praise is not universal. French Jews and other critics blasted Mr Mitterrand's decision to meet with Mr. Arafat in 1989, branding the Palestinian leader a terrorist. His visit to Paris at the time brought thousands of protesters to the street.
Israeli officials have also complained that France has a pro-Palestinian bias. And some reportedly blamed President Chirac after the Paris talks collapsed in October 2000. Mr Chirac allegedly advised Mr Arafat to harden his stance during the discussions in the French capitol with former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.
France's determination to maintain diplomatic relations with Mr Arafat in recent months has not helped improve its relations with Israel. Foreign Minister Barnier canceled a planned trip to Israel in July, following Israeli anger over his decision to meet with Mr Arafat the previous month. He finally paid a fence-mending visit to Israel two-weeks ago.
But Mr Arafat's medical treatment is seen as a humanitarian gesture by France, as well as a political one. Israel said the Palestinian leader could return to Ramallah following his stay in France, and the Bush administration said it hopes Mr Arafat would get the treatment he needs.