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An enigma wrapped in a conflict

Yasir Arafat A Political Biography Barry M. Rubin and Judith Colp Rubin Oxford University Press: 354 pp., $27.50 * Arafat's War The Man and His Battle for Israeli Conquest Efraim Karsh Grove Press: 320 pp., $25

October 19, 2003|Nicholas Goldberg | Nicholas Goldberg, a reporter in the Middle East from 1995 to 1998, is the editor of the op-ed page of The Times.

IN 1996, I saw Yasser Arafat arriving home from one of his many trips abroad, greeted by a brass band and a battalion of spiffy, blue-suited Palestinian police officers. The Palestinian flag was blowing red, white, black and green in the dusty Gaza breeze; the Mediterranean Sea was visible behind him.

In those days, he was the unchallenged, duly elected president of the Palestinian Authority -- the rais, as he was known -- and a Palestinian state seemed so certain and so imminent that he had just had his face printed on a series of newly minted postage stamps. The de-occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip was proceeding -- Israeli troops were withdrawing rapidly from Jenin, Nablus, Ramallah and Bethlehem -- and the peace process, though troubled, seemed fundamentally unstoppable.

On this particular day, Arafat was dressed, as usual, in his army fatigues and his black-and-white kaffiyeh as he waved triumphantly and disappeared behind the white walls of his seaside office.

Today, however, Arafat lives behind a different set of walls, isolated under house arrest in a half-wrecked compound in Ramallah, facing a threat of expulsion or perhaps death. He's 74 now and in poor health. His overseas friends have turned on him; money from credulous donor countries has dried up.

It's no longer fashionable to speak well of Arafat, particularly in the United States and Israel. He is widely viewed as the obstacle to Middle East peace, a weak, aging, mercurial dictator whose inability to rise to the occasion -- whose unwillingness even to moderate his uncompromising rhetoric, much less take on the Islamic rejectionists -- has doomed his people to continue indefinitely in statelessness. Abba Eban, Israel's longtime foreign minister, famously said of the Palestinians that "they never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity," and Arafat seems intent on proving him right. The peace process is all but dead.

For those who still need convincing, two new biographies are here to help. "Yasir Arafat: A Political Biography" by Barry M. Rubin and Judith Colp Rubin, and "Arafat's War: The Man and His Battle for Israeli Conquest" by Efraim Karsh don't mince words. In his opening pages, Karsh calls Arafat a murderer -- he "killed his first victim" in 1949 or 1950, Karsh alleges. A few pages later, he discusses in some detail the "persistent speculation" that Arafat is homosexual, even repeating a story in which he is overheard making love to his bodyguard while "roaring like a tiger and his lover yelping like a hyena." The subsequent chapters -- "Hate Thy Neighbor," "Terror Until Victory" and "Violence Pays," among others -- offer more of the same.

The Rubins' book is far less shrill, but it too makes the case that Arafat never really gave up violence, that he recognized Israel only "resentfully and resisting to the last," in Yitzhak Rabin's words, and that this false conversion was part of a lifelong pattern of deception, manipulation and ultimately self-destructive foolishness.

These are familiar arguments; the Netanyahu and Sharon governments both offered variations on the same theme. Yet one can't help feeling there must be more, that these books are not biographies at all -- just polemics. The authors seem far less interested in understanding Arafat or tracing his history or explaining his actions and motivations than in proving their theses.

After all, whatever you think of Arafat, he is a fabulous figure who deserves a real rendering. For 40 years, he has danced across the world stage, generating hatred, yes, but other emotions as well. He rose from obscurity to transform a dispossessed, politically impotent, oil-poor people into a formidable nationalist movement. When Arafat founded Fatah in 1959, Dwight D. Eisenhower was president. David Ben-Gurion was Israel's prime minister. The Palestinians had been forgotten.

Somehow, Arafat clambered to the top of the pile in the mid-1960s, and he has held power at the Palestine Liberation Organization ever since, while his contemporaries -- Gamel Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat, Saddam Hussein, King Hussein, Hafez Assad -- have been driven from power, assassinated or died of old age. Arafat escaped death in an airplane crash and has survived Israel's repeated efforts to capture or assassinate him. He may have invented modern terrorism, but that is only one of his claims on our attention.

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