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Arafat Under the Microscope : ARAFAT; In the Eyes of the Beholder By Janet Wallach and John Wallach (Lyle Stuart/Carol Publishing: $19.95; 374 pp., illustrated)

November 11, 1990|Peter Theroux | Theroux is the author of "Sandstorms: Days and Nights in Arabia" (W. W. Norton).

"I am running very fast. I am running very fast. Believe me; believe me," Yasser Arafat implored Janet and John Wallach, the authors of "Arafat: In the Eyes of the Beholder," in Baghdad just a few weeks ago. Even "during the siege of Beirut I was not as worried as I am worried now."

Naturally. During Israel's massive 1982 counteroffensive in Beirut, Arafat had won the grudging admiration of some of his worst enemies by meeting with supporters in city streets even as they were being blown to pieces by Israeli vacuum bombs. By this autumn, however, Arafat and Palestine were losing center stage as he scurried around a closing ring of friendly countries, straining to seem confident as he desperately played courtier to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Is Arafat finished? The answer is probably no, but in any case his cause is still alive, and both he and it deserve to be evaluated on the best possible evidence. Hence this exhaustive, colorful and probably definitive biography of the 60-year-old guerrilla.

The Baghdad interview comes in the epilogue of "Arafat," a "secret" chapter withheld from early review copies of the biography as a transparent publicity ploy. Nevertheless, the chapter does an excellent job of showing Arafat being Arafat, as he nervously holds court in Baghdad amid the Iraq-Kuwait crisis. We see exactly how this leader, while characterized as a wild terrorist, actually has led a brilliant political career carefully plotted around American interests.

The chapter gives a minute-by-minute account of the diplomacy leading up to the U.S. government's formal recognition of the PLO as a negotiating partner (not, however, as the "sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people"). It should surprise no one, of course, that the PLO-USA deal was a finely orchestrated and fastidiously scripted affair, involving Swedish diplomats, American Jewish groups, and Palestinian guerrilla-bureaucrats, with the object of making Arafat "say the words" explicitly renouncing terrorism and recognizing Israel; or that the whole thing was fraught with near-disasters. It makes gripping reading anyway.

Starting with Arafat's birth--in itself still controversial, since no one can agree whether Egypt or Palestine can claim the event -- Janet and John Wallach, a married pair of Jewish journalists, intercut the story of his youth with chapters recording Arafat's present exile: playing statesman with European politicians, scanning the latest faxes from West Bank villages, pumping away on his Exercycle, being measured for his wax likeness by Madame Tussaud's people, and talking--always talking:

"I am a good Muslim," he likes to say, "and a good Jew. . . . For your information, to be a good Muslim, you have to be a good Christian and a good Jew. . . . Judaism is part of my religion. . . . The Jews are very intelligent. They are the elite . . . and we are the elite. We are like our cousins, the Jews."

Using a broad canvas, and bringing no detectable bias to the issues, the authors avoid a lethal fault of past biographies of Arafat, which were heavily dependent on prized marathon interviews with their talkative subject. The Wallachs logged long hours with Arafat, but also with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, King Hussein of Jordan, PFLP commander George Habash and dozens more makers of war and peace in the Middle East, many of whom--especially the Syrians--utterly loathe Arafat and provide the book with some of its hottest gossip and inside information.

Part of Arafat's conundrum is that he is a dictator without a state, a head of state only on paper, yet someone who possesses more popular support and solid executive experience than many of the Middle East's actual presidents and monarchs. As Palestine's most famous non-resident, a nomad dependent on the money and patronage of 20 countries, Arafat must be depicted in context, and through many perspectives. "Arafat" is more than equal to this task, covering the man as well as the Israeli-Palestinian problem and tensions throughout the region.

A complex portrait emerges, of a soft-spoken moderate who lives only to negotiate with Israel, and of a bitter and violent hard-liner with almost messianic pretensions. When a television reporter asks a blunt question, about whether he personally is responsible for terrorist acts, we get a glimpse of Arafat as a raging, haughty and villainous CEO:

"Is this an investigation?" he thunders. "You are speaking to the chairman of the PLO, the president of the state of Palestine. Be careful with your investigation!"

And he sweeps out of the room.

His many faces and ambiguities are nothing new, of course, and the authors highlight how these deliberate contradictions are reflected in the assignments given Arafat's many lieutenants:

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