‘I am de Gaulle, I am Mandela, I am Washington’

Two Biographies Explore the Life of Yasser Arafat, But Neither Pierces the Darkness

By Yossi Alpher

Published March 05, 2004, issue of March 05, 2004.
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Yasir Arafat: A Political Biography

By Barry Rubin and Judith Colp Rubin

Oxford University Press, 354 pages, $27.50.

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Arafat’s War: The Man and His Battle for Israeli Conquest

By Efraim Karsh

Grove Press, 320 pages, $25.

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In the course of several meetings during the latter half of the 1990s, I witnessed Yasser Arafat fly into an egomaniacal rage, screaming, “I am de Gaulle, I am Mandela, I am George Washington”; gently explain to me that, given the combined numbers of Sephardic Jews and Israeli Arabs, “70% of Israelis are already Arabs, so it’s only a matter of time before Israel becomes an Arab country”; blame the Mossad for the early Palestinian suicide bombings; and exclaim, when confronted with a CNN clip showing himself patting the heads of Palestinian schoolchildren as they sing the praises of suicide bombers, “This is outrageous; I’ll talk to their teachers.” And I watched as his more “westernized” assistants and ministers winced with embarrassment at these performances and signaled to me not to pay them any heed.

I once asked an Israeli who served for months as the Israeli prime minister’s personal emissary to Arafat if he could label the leader’s most difficult challenge. “Arafat simply can’t stop lying,” he replied without hesitation.

So once the undisputed leader of the Palestinians returned to full-time armed struggle against Israel and declared that there never was a Jewish presence on the Temple Mount, I had little difficulty acknowledging his disastrous role in the collapse of the process and understanding that he posed a serious obstacle to peace and to the real welfare of the Palestinian people. Accordingly, it made perfect sense that the rise and fall of the Oslo Accords and the deterioration of the entire process into bloody and cruel conflict rendered somewhat obsolete the dozen or so existing biographies of Arafat and warranted a new look at the Palestinian leader. In particular, I hoped to read an analysis of Arafat’s performance that would explain how and why the peace process collapsed and what we could learn about Palestinian leadership, past and present, that might help us in the future. And of course I wanted to know why Palestinians still blindly follow the man.

In all these respects, the two newest biographies of Arafat are disappointing. Barry and Judith Rubin and Efraim Karsh are all well-known scholars of the Middle East and prolific writers, and both books are successful in describing not so much why but how Arafat is a disastrous leader and peacemaker. Though Karsh’s knowledge of Arabic affords him direct access to the Arab media, the Rubins’ effort is more balanced and analytical. It places Arafat in the context of Third World revolutionaries, offers evidence for occasional positive aspects of his political behavior, and employs secondary source material in a relatively discriminating manner. Its description and analysis of the pre-Oslo phase in Arafat’s career is far more detailed than that provided by Karsh.

Yet neither the Rubins nor Karsh bothered to interview Arafat himself — yes, access to him in Ramallah could have been arranged — or for that matter, any of his intimates and advisers; indeed, no Palestinians are interviewed at all. Neither book cites recent scholarly works by highly qualified Palestinians like Khalil Shikaki and Yezid Sayigh, both of whom have attempted to explain Arafat’s strategic thinking (or lack thereof) and the socioeconomic and political underpinnings of the current conflict. While the Rubins’ and Karsh’s verbal demolition of Arafat is a foregone conclusion — it is indeed difficult to portray him as anything but deceitful and incapable of coming to terms with Israel’s existence — the lack of nuance, depth and balance in these books is disturbing. It is only compounded by lack of attention to fact, detail and the correct spelling of names.

None of the authors has anything critical to say about Israel’s contribution to the current mess. Karsh mentions neither the larger problem of settlement expansion nor examples of Jewish extremism such as Baruch Goldstein, who massacred 30 Palestinians at prayer in Hebron in February 1994 — both key negative turning points in the Oslo process (the Rubins devote barely a page to them). Neither book offers anything beyond the sketchiest analysis of the currents and dynamics within the pre-Arafat Palestinian polity that eventuated in Arafat’s appearance on the scene. His sole predecessor as Palestinian national leader, Haj Amin Al-Husseini, passed from the scene nearly 20 years before Arafat’s emergence, after leading his people to an equally disastrous dead end. Does this suggest that the Palestinians are bent on national suicide? That a similar leadership vacuum might follow Arafat’s end? These biographies do not enlighten us.

Karsh’s reputation was built in part on his critique of the Israeli new historians, arguing that Benny Morris and others allegedly abused source material to implicate Israel in the expulsion of some of the 1948 refugees. Accordingly, one would expect Karsh to exercise great care in selecting and handling his own sources. Instead, he indiscriminately cites Israeli media sources — not all reliable or unbiased politically. He quotes at length and with evident glee from the shocking descriptions of Arafat contributed by a Romanian intelligence chief who defected to the West in 1978, Ion Pacepa, some of whose allegations never checked out. Even the subtitle of his book — “The Man and His Battle for Israeli Conquest” — is muddled: Did Arafat, according to Karsh, battle for conquest of Israel or by Israel?

Karsh treats a series of Israeli leaders who dealt with Arafat as naive dupes. Only Ariel Sharon emerges as a man who knows how to deal with Arafat and can do no wrong. This of course invites the question: How would Karsh deal with Sharon’s recent about-face — his apparent readiness to remove settlements from Gaza and the West Bank? As another inexplicable capitulation to Arafat’s deceit and manipulation? Or is the reality simply a lot more complicated than Karsh allows?

Whether we like it or not, Arafat picked up the pieces of a broken people in the 1960s and 1970s. He put the Palestinians on the map and their cause on the international agenda. Despite his monstrous strategic miscalculations and mistakes, they still hail him as their leader. The Rubins at least make an effort to sum up the tragic aspect of his leadership:

Arafat’s devotion was to the Palestinian cause and not to the Palestinian people… . What he did not learn… was that using terrorism does not win political struggles… . This was a man … who ultimately could not imagine a peaceful resolution of his mission… . Arafat, the man who did more than anyone else to champion and advance the Palestinian cause, also inflicted years of unnecessary suffering on his people.

But why do they write about him in the past tense? He is still the leader of the Palestinians. Do the authors have any thoughts at all about alternative policy directions for Palestinians and Israelis? The Rubins are silent, while Karsh’s prescription is thoroughly neoconservative and about as simplistic as his overall analysis: Replace the entire Palestinian leadership and follow the post-World War II model of democratizing Germany and Japan. I wonder if he has been watching what’s happening in Iraq.

About 50 years ago, Alfred Hitchcock made a film called “The Trouble with Harry.” Harry was dead, and the trouble was that no one could get rid of the body. The trouble with Arafat — and I submit that nearly every past and serving Arab leader would sign on to this — is that no one can get rid of him. But under the current circumstances, Arafat’s ongoing presence is not the only problem. Sharon, too, has no strategy for peace or peaceful coexistence, and President Bush can’t seem to be bothered. We should keep this in mind while we’re blaming Arafat.

Yossi Alpher is co-editor of bitterlemons.org and bitterlemons-international.org. He is a former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, and a former senior adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Barak.






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