Arafat Gets a Thrashing

In this well-documented but factually sloppy biography of the Palestinian leader, everything he does is linked in some way to Israel. Hence it is impossible to write about him while ignoring Israeli policy - but the authors often do.

"Yasir Arafat: A Political Biography" by Barry Rubin and Judith Colp Rubin, Continuum, 354 pages, $11

In the last paragraph of their biography of Palestinian Authority Chairman Arafat, Barry Rubin and Judith Colp Rubin sum up their protagonist as follows: "This was the ultimate irony of his life: 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, delaying any beneficial redress of their grievances or solutions to their problems."

While they begin by praising Arafat, as it were, for devoting his life to his people's struggle, they end by damning him for his actions, which have done nothing but harm. Indeed, harsh criticism of Arafat's political path and a negative portrait of his personality are the crux of this book.

Arafat has been the subject of over 10 biographies and the leading man in dozens, if not hundreds, of books on the Middle East and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Nearly everyone who has written about Arafat has taken a stand. Some have portrayed him sympathetically and others have been fiercely critical.

Perhaps the best and most objective of these to date is Andrew Gower and Tony Walker's "Behind the Myth: Arafat and the Palestinian Revolution," published in 1990. Of the books that condemn Arafat, the Rubin study is the most detailed indictment (if one discounts the first Arafat biography, written in 1976 by Thomas Kiernan with the help of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, where the obvious objective was to blacken his name and there are more errors than truth).

Despite an abundance of footnotes and an impressive bibliography, this book is also marred by mistakes. The authors write, for example, that Arafat's mother was a member of the Husseini family, which is not true. She was from another Jerusalem family: the Abu Sauds. They write that Abd al-Qader al-Husseini, the admired commander of the Palestinians in the War of Independence, was a nephew of the mufti, Haj Amin, which is also untrue. They are from different branches of this large clan.

Unforgivable mistakes

The book is laden with sloppy factual errors: The Sinai Campaign began on October 26, 1956 - not in September. The terrorist attack in Kiryat Shmona did not take place in December 1974, but in April of that year, and the number of dead was not 52, but 18 - and the list goes on.

On top of that, there are certain mistakes that are unforgivable in the work of such respected researchers. They claim, for example, that Arafat's "frequent insistence that a Palestinian state already existed and that he was its president showed either a failure to understand the peace process's terms of refusal to abide by them." By way of explanation, they offer this footnote: "The Oslo agreement defined Arafat's title as `chairman,' not president."

The reason for making an issue over this particular matter, which is perhaps not that important, is that anyone who has studied the Oslo agreement, however briefly, knows that the ongoing point of contention between the parties was over Arafat's title as head of the Palestinian Authority. The official document is in English, and the Palestinians insisted that Arafat be called "president." The Israeli delegates, however, were adamant that "chairman" was enough. A clever compromise was to leave Arafat's title in Arabic - transliterated in the document as "ra'ees." Appendix 2 reads: "Elections will be held for the Council, and simultaneously for the ra'ees of the Executive Authority."

Why did they choose to leave the title in Arabic? For the simple reason that "ra'ees" means both president and chairman. Many people may recall how Bill Clinton, then U.S. president, was careful to address Arafat as "Mr. Ra'ees" when he visited Gaza in December 1998. To all those present at the convention hall in Gaza, it was clear that he was sticking to the wording which had been agreed upon at Oslo. Therefore, when the authors of this biography state that according to the Oslo agreement, Arafat was the chairman and not the president, and then proceed to accuse him of duplicity, they are simply wrong.

I think pointing this out is important because finding subjects in which Arafat deserves to be castigated is no problem at all, especially the political acrobatics, conniving tricks and wise-guy tactics that are deliberately meant to deceive. So why invent falsehoods?

Arafat does get a thrashing in this book. The authors portray his lengthy political career as a series of blunders, poor judgment and lack of understanding. Arafat emerges from their analysis as a treacherous and moody man, a terrorist who has never repudiated violence and is responsible for the appalling bloodshed of the past years. They see him as a tyrant who encourages vice and corruption, and insinuate that his brand of terrorism served as a model for bin Laden.

The question that arises from such a description of Arafat is how he has managed to survive and win the hearts of the Palestinians. If he is such a despicable creature and has made every mistake in the book, why do his people continue to trust him? Are the Palestinians so helpless and blind that they can't see what a terrible leader he is?

The Rubins are endlessly critical of Arafat, but their criticism is often misguided. They harp on what a grievous mistake it was to support Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War and the months leading up to it (1990-1991), but they do not mention that King Hussein of Jordan adopted that same policy. This ought to have been mentioned because both the PLO and Jordan paid a heavy price for their backing of the Iraqi leader when the war was over. But the truth is, they probably didn't have much choice. The Palestinians on both sides of the Jordan enthusiastically supported Saddam and the annexation of Kuwait, and if Arafat or King Hussein had taken a different line, who knows if they would still be in power.

Temper tantrum

The authors continue to lash out at Arafat elsewhere in the book, again letting King Hussein off the hook. This time, the issue is the release of Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin from an Israeli jail. The Rubins write that Arafat demanded Yassin's release, which is correct, and that Yassin was welcomed in Gaza with hugs and kisses, which is also correct. Then they go on to say that liberating Yassin led to an increase in Hamas terror, which is hard to disagree with. The problem with this account lies in what it doesn't say, which is that the release of Yassin was orchestrated not by Arafat but by King Hussein, who insisted that Israel let Yassin go in return for the Mossad agents captured in Amman during the botched attempt to assassinate Khaled Meshal.

At the time, the papers were full of reports about Arafat having a temper tantrum and screaming at the cabinet meeting in Ramallah upon being told that Yassin was being freed as a gesture to the king of Jordan. So if Arafat was so upset about the circumstances of Yassin's release, how can he be accused of ingratitude to Israel and of ordering a new wave of terrorism in response?

The authors' negative attitude toward Arafat is more or less explained, but there is never a bad word about Israeli policy. Their account of the Sabra and Chatila affair (during the Lebanon War) is as follows: "On September 16, 1982, receiving word of the presence of armed Palestine Liberation Organization units in Sabra and Chatila, the Israel army permitted 300 Christian militiamen to enter the camps." Later on they write that the consequences were horrifying, but that "Arafat's response was to inflate the number of victims." The Rubins' account of the incident would seem to imply that the Israel Defense Forces made a mistake based on misinformation, but Arafat is blamed for exaggerating the casualty reports.

Likewise, the book makes no mention of settlement activities in Gaza and the West Bank. Not a word is said about the Baruch Goldstein massacre in the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, which many believe was a turning point in the fate of the Oslo Accords. True, this is a biography of Arafat, but everything he does is linked in some way to Israel. Hence it is impossible to write about him while ignoring Israeli policy.

According to this biography, Arafat's men may have helped carry out the Shi'ite suicide bombing of the Marine headquarters in Beirut that killed 241 American soldiers, and one of the most wanted Al-Qaida terrorists, Lebanese-born Imad Mughniyah, sprang from Arafat's midst, after serving in his personal security unit, Force 17. Thus the Rubins drop some heavy-handed hints that Arafat is responsible, not only for Israel's troubles, but much more.

No one knows how long Arafat will continue to lead the Palestinian people. In view of the political path he has chosen, he is obviously a bitter enemy of Israel, and he has made his share of mistakes, but those who go overboard and blame him for all our troubles today would do well to watch what they say. Arafat's heirs could be a lot worse.

Danny Rubinstein, Haaretz senior correspondent on Palestinian affairs, is the author of "The Mystery of Arafat."