YASIR ARAFAT: A POLITICAL BIOGRAPHY
Barry Rubin and Judith Colp Rubin
Oxford University Press $28, 354 pages, illus
Had Yasser Arafat been responsible for facilitating the murder of Americans instead of Israeli civilians these past three years, he would almost certainly be dead, in prison, or forced to live out his days like Osama bin Laden — as a fugitive from justice. Israel has lost more than 870 people in the wave of terrorist violence that began on Sept. 29, 2000 — three years ago yesterday — courtesy of Mr. Arafat, and continues up to the present time. Relative to population, it’s the equivalent of roughly 35,000 Americans dying in terrorist attacks.
Washington’s response to September 11, when slightly over 3,000 Americans were murdered, has been to launch a war halfway around the world in an effort to kill or capture bin Laden. By contrast, Israel — under intense pressure from its staunchest ally, the United States — has pursued a much more cautious approach in dealing with the current wave of Palestinian terrorism that Mr. Arafat has unleashed.
As Barry and Judith Colp Rubin point out in their intriguing new book “Yasir Arafat: A Political Biography,” a Forbes magazine study published in March lists the Palestinian Authority chairman as the world’s sixth-richest political leader, worth an estimated $300 million. By contrast, more than 1 million Palestinians — the people Mr. Arafat claims to represent — continue to live in fetid refugee camps scattered throughout the Middle East.
Three years ago, President Clinton offered Mr. Arafat the opportunity to create a Palestinian state including Gaza, as well as 97 percent of the West Bank. Israel would have also ceded control of Eastern Jerusalem neighborhoods and Islamic holy places to the Palestinians. The dovish Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak accepted this. Mr. Barak paid dearly for his generosity at the polls the following February, losing a 25-point landslide to the right-of-center Likud leader Ariel Sharon.
Why would Mr. Arafat reject this opportunity to actually achieve something for his people: the creation of an independent state, which he would lead? From reading the Rubins’ book, it’s apparent that Mr. Arafat is much more comfortable being a revolutionary than in grappling with the real-world problems involved in running a country. The latter would have posed serious new challenges for him. By contrast, while the status quo has been miserable for the great majority of Palestinians, it has worked out well for Mr. Arafat, who has used it to make himself a wealthy man courted by heads of state.
On the whole, the authors do a fine job of chronicling the political career of Mr. Arafat — particularly from the founding of Fatah in 1959 until today. It’s all there: how Mr. Arafat provoked a civil war in Jordan in 1970, and King Hussein’s army drove him out of the country; how Mr. Arafat moved to Lebanon, where his forces routinely robbed and murdered Lebanese civilians; how Mr. Arafat’s PLO was chased out of Lebanon, first by Israel in 1982 and then by Syria in 1983; his collaboration with Saddam Hussein following the 1990 invasion of Kuwait; and his flagrant violations of the Oslo accords with Israel, which began not long after he signed the first agreement with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1993. Mr. Arafat’s roles in the 1972 Munich Olympics Massacre and the 1973 murders of two American diplomats in Sudan are also skillfully documented.
Unfortunately, despite its many fine qualities, this book is also marred by a series of irritating factual errors. To cite just two examples: the Rubins incorrectly suggest that the 1996 riots instigated by Mr. Arafat after Israel opened a tunnel near the Temple Mount took place in November of that year; they actually took place two months earlier. They also botch the sequence of events involving a Sept. 4, 1997 bombing of a mall in Jerusalem and Israel’s release of the founder of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmad Yasin, a few weeks later (the Rubins incorrectly claim that the bombing occurred in November).
Despite these flaws, on balance, the Rubins do a solid job of showing what kind of a man Yasser Arafat is, and how he eventually managed to destroy the Oslo peace process.
Joel Himelfarb is assistant editor of the editorial page of The Washington Times.