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The chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization has long puzzled observers, including his biographers (note the titles of two books about him published in 1990: Behind the Myth: Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Revolution and Arafat: In the Eyes of the Beholder). How has someone so deeply flawed as an individual and a leader managed to achieve so much and acquired so much authority? Rubinstein, a columnist at the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz, makes answering this "mystery of Arafat" the goal of his book. "How is it that someone who looks so strange and is so lacking in seriousness can at the same time be considered a statesman and revolutionary of the first order?" In his slight but rich study, Rubinstein takes up basic questions about Arafat: Where was he born? What is his real name? Why does he look so grubby? Why does he travel so maniacally? Why did he get married on the sly?

With brilliant insight, the author shows that every aspect of Arafat's public persona -- from his stubbly face to his doing business late at night -- fits a single pattern. In all these ways, he has "accurately and persistently . . . reflected the distress and the needs of the Palestinian public." Rubinstein convincingly shows how everything Arafat does (even not shaving) seeks "to provide the Palestinian revolution, of which he is the center, with legitimacy." Arafat's success, in other words, derives from his being able to create a myth in which his own personality fuses with the Palestinian cause. In 1995's Middle East book of the year, idiomatically translated, Rubinstein really does solve the Arafat mystery.