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Yasir Arafat: A Political Biography

May 9, 2009 | by Tom Gross

The relentless career of a confidence man.

For more than four decades, since he founded Fatah in 1959 and then the Palestinian Liberation Organization in 1964, Yasir Arafat has enjoyed the flattering glare of the international spotlight. Whole generations of generals and peace envoys, a half-dozen U.S. presidents and entire Arab regimes have come and gone, but Mr. Arafat has kept himself in power -- even as he has failed his people and pursued policies that have added to their distress. Other Arab leaders have long since stopped trusting him, taking it for granted that he will not honor the agreements he has signed. Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak once referred to him, in the presence of Secretary of State Warren Christopher, as "a son of a dog." Mr. Arafat is one of the inventors of modern terrorism and continues to instigate it to this day.

Despite this, a multitude of admirers and apologists in the West -- and even in Israel itself -- have been taken in by his pose of moderation, at least until recently. As a result, he has visited nearly every royal palace and presidential residence in Europe and was a guest of honor at the White House several times. He has even won the Nobel Peace Prize.

How did this happen? As Middle East scholar Barry Rubin and his journalist wife, Judith Colp Rubin, show in their admirable, impressively documented "Yasir Arafat: A Political Biography," he is one of the great con men of modern politics. Even those who know what a slippery character Mr. Arafat is may be surprised to learn from the Rubins' account just how deceitful he can be.

He claims to have been born in Jerusalem, for instance, but was in fact born in Cairo. He has told tales of single-handedly stopping an Israeli tank column in the 1948 war, though the evidence places him in Egypt at the time, far from the fighting. He has stated that he was an officer in the Egyptian army defending Port Said during the 1956 Suez war; the truth is that he was in Czechoslovakia, attending a Communist-sponsored student congress.

More broadly, he has alleged that there have been massacres of Palestinians where none have occurred. He has talked of PLO victories when it has suffered heavy losses. Some of his falsehoods in recent years have been utterly fantastic -- that there was never a Jewish temple in Jerusalem, that Ariel Sharon is planning to settle 500,000 Afghan Jews on the West Bank. But that hasn't stopped some journalists from taking them seriously.

Experience has taught him that terrorism pays.

Part of Mr. Arafat's success undoubtedly derives from the image he has cultivated. From early on he grasped the importance of public relations and developed personal trademarks that are now world-famous: the stubble beard; the headscarf carefully draped to resemble a map of Palestine (including the whole of Israel); the military uniform, which he has insisted on wearing even at peace-signing ceremonies, as if he had come straight from the battlefield. And Mr. Arafat knows how to turn on the charm. When an American journalist brought his little daughter to meet him last year in Ramallah (shortly after Arafat's Al Aqsa Brigades murdered several Israeli children), the Palestinian leader spent half the interview playing with her.

But beneath the apparent warmth is ruthlessness. Mr. Arafat has never hesitated to order violence or to encourage it, including violence between different Arab groups. He has worked on the assumption -- a correct one, as it turns out -- that while exasperated Arab leaders might wash their hands of him, the Americans whom he has so much reviled will step in to save him. This was as true in Beirut in 1982, when Mr. Arafat was allowed to flee to Tunis, as it was in April of last year, when Secretary of State Colin Powell rushed to Mr. Arafat's Ramallah compound to help pressure the encircling Israelis to back away from expelling him.

In general, experience has taught him that, far from marginalizing him -- as foreign leaders have repeatedly warned him it would -- terrorism pays. Already by November 1974, the PLO's record had included plane hijackings, letter bombs, the assassination of America's ambassador to the Sudan and of Jordan's prime minister, the Olympic Games massacre, the slaughter of 21 Israeli schoolchildren at Maalot and 52 Israelis -- mainly women and children -- in Kiryat Shmona. That was the month in which he was invited (by a vote of 105 countries to four) to address the United Nations General Assembly.

As for political tactics, the Rubins remind us, Mr. Arafat is often astute, positioning himself between competing Islamic, Marxist and nationalist Palestinian groupings. From as early as the 1950s he had contacts with both the KGB and the CIA. One of his closest allies was Saddam Hussein, yet Mr. Arafat was the first foreign leader to visit Tehran after Khomeini seized power in 1979. (He arranged for Khomeini's son to receive training at a PLO camp in Lebanon.) Even today, though the Western media talks of a "new Palestinian prime minister," Chairman Arafat retains control of almost all the key elements of power in the Palestinian political arena and security services.

But what has it all added up to? Misery, strife and murder, among much else, and stalemate. The Rubins, along with documenting his corruption and misrule, make clear how much Palestinians and Israelis alike have suffered from his refusal to entertain, with any sincerity, a two-state solution to the crisis in the Mideast. But then he may fear, with some reason, that ending the Palestine conflict will end the fawning attention of the world's elites and his grip on power.

Click here to purchase a copy of "Yasir Arafat: A Political Biography."

This article originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal.


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