Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

PLO Power Struggle Surfaces

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Palestinians used to dismiss Yasser Arafat's wife, Suha, as a spoiled socialite who chose life in Paris over standing by her husband in his besieged West Bank headquarters.

Now Mrs. Arafat -- who had not even seen her husband for years until he fell gravely ill last month -- has suddenly emerged as a major player in the succession struggle.

In a one-minute-long telephone call to the Arab satellite television network Al-Jazeera early Monday, Suha Arafat set off a political storm and made public the behind-the-scenes power struggle that has been brewing since her husband fell ill last month.

Suha Arafat -- who until now remained largely outside the political scene -- forced Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia and the Palestine Liberation Organization's No. 2, Mahmoud Abbas, to postpone their trip to Paris by accusing them of conspiring to "bury" her husband "alive." They rescheduled their trip later Monday.

Mrs. Arafat, a Christian convert to Islam, ended the phone call with "God is Great," often used as a Muslim war cry.

Tayeb Abdel Rahim, a senior Arafat aide, called an urgent news conference early Monday to publicly declare the anger of the Palestinian leadership over Mrs. Arafat's remarks.

"What came from Mrs. Arafat doesn't represent our people," he said, accusing Mrs. Arafat of "wanting to destroy the Palestinian leadership's decision and to be the lone decision-maker."

Palestinian officials, the Israeli media and analysts blamed Suha Arafat for the fog surrounding her husband's condition, saying her silence has created a vacuum that has been filled by a slew of rumors.

West Bank Palestinians have sarcastically dubbed Mrs. Arafat "Madame Susu" -- a child's nickname -- because of her obstinate demand to maintain control over the flow of information out of Paris.

Since Arafat's hospitalization 10 days ago in a military hospital outside Paris, his wife has largely controlled access to the 75-year-old symbol of Palestinian national aspirations.

In recent days, Mrs. Arafat has aligned herself with Palestinian officials opposed to the current leadership, including Abbas, Palestinian officials said.

She has found herself in a common position with the PLO's hard-line foreign affairs chief, Farouk Kaddoumi, who opposed the 1993 interim peace accords that led to the establishment of the Palestinian Authority.

The hard-line group appears to be jockeying for control of the PLO, the most powerful and influential Palestinian body.

Some analysts said Suha Arafat, who has received a generous monthly stipend from her husband and is under investigation by French authorities for the alleged illegal transfers of $11.4 million into her accounts, is elbowing onto the Palestinian political scene, but it remained unclear why.

"It appears to be a kind of conflict over money and properties, because Suha has no political position in the Palestinian system," said Palestinian newspaper commentator Hani Masri. However, it is also possible she is planning a political putsch, he said.

"This is an indication of the trouble that will emerge in the post-Arafat era. Even the Palestinian leadership appears to be failing in handling this issue," he said.

A Nablus-born Christian, Suha served as Arafat's secretary when he was in exile in Tunis. In 1991, Mrs. Arafat converted to Islam and married the Palestinian leader.

Mrs. Arafat was 28 when she married the then-62-year-old Palestinian leader, and was immediately unpopular.

Conspiracy theories raced through Palestinian streets that Suha Arafat's mother, Ramonda Tawil, a well-known Palestinian journalist, arranged the marriage as a way to control Arafat.

Mrs. Arafat generated more animosity when she arrived in the largely Muslim, conservative Gaza Strip in 1994 and refused to cover her long blonde hair with the traditional Islamic head covering.

Her expensive Parisian clothes and the luxury BMW she drove around Gaza's poverty-stricken streets enraged Palestinians.

Mrs. Arafat also frustrated the Palestinian leadership by making statements contrary to official policy. Once she expressed sympathy for militant groups when the Palestinian Authority was in a heated battle to put them down.

In 1999, she embarrassed then-U.S. first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was running for Senate, by accusing Israel in a speech of using poisonous gas on Palestinians and increasing cancer rates. In her book, Clinton referred to the hug and kiss from Suha Arafat as the "worst" mistake of her campaign.

In 2002, after Arafat condemned "all terrorist acts which target civilians," Suha told a London-based Arabic newspaper that if she had a son, "there would be no greater honor than to sacrifice him for the Palestinian cause."

Yet in 2000, when violence erupted, Suha Arafat fled to Paris with her young daughter, Zahwa, making her first foray into Yasser Arafat's besieged headquarters last month when he fell ill.