Yasir Arafat: A Political Biography
by Barry Rubin and Judith Colp Rubin
Oxford. 354 pp. $27.50
by Efraim Karsh
Grove. 296 pp. $25.00
Yasir Arafat has held the Palestinians in his personal grip for almost five decades—a fact that is itself a monument to the tribal and absolute politics of Palestinian society. His declared ambition has been to obtain a state, and so to remedy the historic Arab rejection of the 1947 UN partition plan that is evidently the abiding source of Palestinian misfortune. But what sort of state? Either it must live alongside Israel or it is meant to eradicate Israel. Which is it to be?
At times, and with high drama, Arafat has agreed to compromise—that is, to live alongside Israel—only to resort soon afterward to violence. This pattern of alternating between yes and no has caused mayhem and huge loss of life. The futility of it is also baffling. Is Arafat the helpless victim of cultural conditioning? Or does something in his character prevent him from taking the realistic measure of Israel, of other Arab leaders, and of the whole watching world?
Arafat’s background is obscure, so obscure that, even today, salient facts about his life are in doubt. According to one of these new books about him, for instance, he was born the fourth child of a small shopkeeper; according to the other, he was the sixth child of a textile merchant. In upbringing and education, he seems to be more Egyptian than Palestinian, having enrolled early in the extremist Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo. In his past he is supposed to have murdered a fellow student, to have made a fortune in Kuwait, to have participated in military campaigns winning him the rank of general—all of which serves to project an aura of heroism around a man physically small, gawky, and unprepossessing.
In the era in which Arafat was growing up, nationalist movements in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia were filling the political and moral void left by World War II. Nationalist leaders were mobilizing and arming their masses, forcing out the exhausted colonial powers and, virtually without exception, setting up absolute rule in tribal and absolute style. The youthful Arafat might well have concluded that freedom and independence were two very different ideals, and that violence paid in the right circumstances. Taking over the Palestine Liberation Organization (founded in and by Egypt in 1964) after the Six-Day war of 1967, Arafat built a nationalist movement on the usual model of the period.
His undoubted achievement has been to transform the Palestinian plight into a cause. In pursuit of that cause, he has behaved like any other Arab dictator, obedient to the iron law of absolutism whereby unchecked power generates violence and violence in turn generates more unchecked power. He has offered himself as the willing client of every enemy of democracy within reach, from the Soviet Union to Saddam Hussein. In Jordan, and later in Lebanon, he deliberately provoked civil war. The international community, although briefly contriving to place him in political quarantine in Tunis, could never summon up the resolve to call his brand of nationalism by its proper name. The United States and the European democracies, and collective institutions like the UN and the EU, have continually allowed him to avoid responsibility for his actions.
Arafat habitually depicts Israelis either in the familiar Muslim Brotherhood stereotype as people who have no right to be where they are, and so must accept the protected or dhimmi status they have had in traditional Islam, or in the nationalist stereotype as imperialists who must go back to their countries of origin. A favorite phrase of his is “the peace of the brave,” which on inspection turns out to mean that Israelis must take him on trust and leave their future in his hands. When it comes to anti-Jewish terrorism, Arafat has set standards that other extremists, whether ideological or Islamist, have had to try to match. A chain of murder connects, over the decades, a Swiss aircraft blown up in mid-air en route to Tel Aviv, killing the 47 people on board; the shooting of eleven Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympic games; the massacre of 27 passengers at Lod airport; the machine-gunning of 22 children and five adults in the northern Israeli town of Ma’alot; the throwing overboard from a cruise liner of the American citizen Leon Klinghoffer; and so forth.
Speaking to Arabs, Arafat makes himself clear. “I have no use for Jews. They are and remain Jews,” he told a group of Arab diplomats in 1996. On several occasions he has been filmed or taped calling, like any member of the Muslim Brotherhood, for jihad against the Jews. A satirist could hardly have imagined that someone with such a record of rhetorical and physical violence could win the Nobel Peace prize; but, of course, he did.
Barry Rubin directs a think tank in Tel Aviv, and his co-author Judith Colp Rubin is a journalist. Efraim Karsh is a professor at King’s College, London. Thoughtfully, and with a great deal of up-to-date and scholarly research, both of these books try to make sense of Arafat’s political record.
The Rubins’ Yasir Arafat is a very complete account of serial miscalculations and of the inability or unwillingness to learn from them: “a record of political failure almost unparalleled in history,” in the authors’ formulation. They ascribe this failure to a combination of character and context. In the belief that violence is an open-ended exploration undertaken for the sake of gain, Arafat prefers to keep the struggle going rather than resolve it. This is revolutionary romanticism, infused with tribalism. He has a nightmare, the Rubins inform us, in which one day a question will be posed to Arab schoolchildren, “Who was Yasir Arafat?,” and the correct answer will be: “The man who gave up Palestine to the Jews.”
Efraim Karsh argues cogently that Arafat’s binary yes/no is explicable only as part of a strategy designed to eliminate the state of Israel. Sponsorship of terror, broken promises and lies, fanciful accusations about supposed Israeli use of poison gas or radioactive uranium, are all permissible means of denigrating, demoralizing, and finally destroying the Jews. The black arts that he practices bear comparison with those of another tribal and absolute leader, Saddam Hussein, in his confrontation with UN weapons inspectors over the course of the 1990’s.
In Karsh’s view, and the Rubins hardly disagree, it was international pressure alone that drove Arafat to pay lip service to the concept of a two-state solution when he signed the Oslo accords in 1993 and ostensibly renounced violence. In reality, the impetus behind his acceptance of Oslo was the disappearance of his Soviet sponsors and the American humbling of Saddam Hussein, which had temporarily closed all other options. The Rubins and Karsh likewise concur that this master of doublespeak was bound to cheat at the first opportunity, in order to advance the single-state solution that alone has been acceptable to him. Thanks to those same Oslo accords, the opportunity came soon enough, as Arafat was brought back from exile in Tunis to bases on the West Bank and in Gaza where he was free to launch again the armed struggle he had just promised to renounce.
The renewal of violence in the 1990’s put successive Israeli governments to the test, and prompted President Bill Clinton to set up shop as a latter-day King Solomon. The Camp David summit in 2000 marked the moment at which a sincere Arafat could at last have brought into being the long-delayed Palestinian state. As the detailed and authoritative accounts in both books attest, this was precisely the solution Arafat was never going to accept.
The Rubins have made a special point of interviewing officials involved on all sides of the abortive negotiations at Camp David. Bad-tempered throughout, giving the impression that he was wasting his time, Arafat had evidently made up his mind well beforehand that, since he had gotten as far as he had gotten through violence, the threat of more violence was bound to yield more concessions. At Camp David he attacked the legitimacy of Israel with the claim that Jews had no religious ties to Jerusalem or to the country, and tried to ensure Israel’s demographic demise in advance by insisting on an unqualified right of return for Palestinian refugees. When offered a deal of unprecedented generosity, he turned it down and left Camp David without putting forward any counter-proposals of his own. With Arafat, Karsh concludes bluntly, the peace process amounted simply to “a grand deception.”
And now? Triggering and encouraging violence with repeated calls for martyrs and mass martyrdom, Arafat has left the Palestinians in a worse plight than the one in which he found them, unable either to resolve the struggle with Israel or to back away from it but, as the Rubins put it, “forever suspended between victory and defeat.” Under Israeli occupation, this was a community well off by third-world standards; now, after seven years of Oslo and three years of unremitting terrorism, its economy is almost derelict and its institutions are riddled with corruption. Standard anti-Jewish stereotypes are propagated in the Palestinian educational system and through the media, and thence, as Karsh emphasizes, broadcast outward to the rest of the Arab world. Huge sums from donor countries end up missing or in accounts controlled exclusively by Arafat for purposes of paying the police-and security apparatus that keeps him in power. When school examinations in the future ask, “Who was Yasir Arafat?,” the truthful answer will be: “The man responsible for Palestinian nihilism, and for the promotion of mass hatred of Jews.”
Things did not have to turn out so darkly, as these timely books make clear. Arafat is now seventy-four. Sooner rather than later, one of several younger contenders will take his place. The context in which he has operated—the context, that is, of Palestinian society and culture—may have abetted Arafat in his determination never to make peace with Israel; but it did not prevent him from doing so. Character alone will decide whether some successor can overcome the immense damage that is his legacy.