Yasir Arafat: A Political Biography
by Barry Rubin and Judith Colp Rubin
New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. 354 pp. $27.50.
Reviewed by Moshe Dann
Middle East Quarterly
Yasir Arafat has become infamous throughout the world, but few, including most world leaders, understand who he is—something the Rubins, a husband-wife team, attempt to answer. They examine how Arafat survived despite his terrorism, his sabotage of attempts at reconciliation, and his failures in advancing his own people. And they show how he played off contending forces, maintained his image as "Mr. Palestine," and fooled everyone with promises and agreements. Their book is essential in understanding who Arafat really is and why peace between Palestinians and Israelis cannot happen as long as he is around to prevent it.
In a straightforward, easygoing, and dramatic account, the authors examine each phase of Arafat's career over nearly half a century and conclude that he was a political failure, "unable to bring his people victory, peace, or an independent state." They present him as a wheeler-dealer who makes trouble wherever he goes and still gets rescued and rewarded, as a megalomaniac, and as a cruel and manipulative liar with a mission to destroy Israel. Arafat's character and vision, they conclude, "required that he not find a solution. He saw the establishment of a state without achieving his goal—eliminating Israel or advancing that process by the Palestinian refugees' return—as a betrayal."
The authors touch on Arafat's role as the leader of perhaps the largest, most powerful, and extensive international terrorist organization in the world. But the Rubins do not focus on the organization itself, perhaps because they have written a biography. Nor do they examine the support Arafat received (and still receives) from the international community and left-wing Israeli Jews, without whose backing Arafat could not have achieved his success in the Oslo agreements.
Arafat has accomplished something (in the eyes of his supporters), however high the price. He "took the Palestinians from the depths of defeat and humiliation to receiving extraordinary attention and often sympathy from the world. He almost single-handedly created Palestinian nationalism. He kept the movement going, mobilized Arab support, but ensured its independence. He took the Palestinians through many disasters and even back to part of the homeland they claimed. He attained international legitimacy and made the world forget time after time his previous reprehensible actions."
As the Rubins suggest, perhaps his most lasting achievement was that he gave his people an identity, a history that defined them. Mass murderer and hero, no other person so exemplifies what it means to be Palestinian, for better or worse, and the human tragedy that it has become.
Related Topics: Palestinians | Moshe Dann | Summer 2004 MEQ
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