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Wednesday, February 04, 2004

The case against Arafat

Books reviewed by Bret Stephens

Arafat's War: The Man and His Battle for Israeli Conquest
By Efraim Karsh

Grove Press. 296 pp. $25
$17.50 at Amazon

Yasir Arafat: A Political Biography
By Barry Rubin and Judith Colp Rubin

Oxford University Press. 352 pp. $28
$11.00 at Amazon
Why won't Israel's conflict with the Palestinians just go away? The world has been working on it for decades: We've had a Rogers Plan and a Reagan Plan, Madrid and the Oslo Accords, the Barcelona Process, Camp David, Taba, Mitchell, Tenet, Zinni, June 24 and the road map, to name the more prominent efforts. The explanation for their respective failures depends on whom you ask, but generally the answers run:
1. Occupation and settlement building
2. Cultural or civilizational frictions
3. Missed diplomatic openings
4. Arab rejection of Israel's right to exist
No doubt there's something to each of these views. But Efraim Karsh, head of the Mediterranean Studies program at King's College, London, and Barry and Judith Colp Rubin, two Israel-based scholars with many books between them, share a different view. The scourge of the Middle East, they would argue, is one man, Yasser Arafat, who single-handedly has done more than anyone or anything else to put peace out of reach.

Karsh's book may as well have been titled "The Case Against Arafat." He dwells briefly on Arafat's boyhood, his early misadventures, his first murder (the account here, described by an eyewitness, is chilling), his struggle to gain absolute mastery of the Palestinian cause, and his sojourns - both of which ended violently - in Jordan and Lebanon.

Most of the book, however, deals with the Oslo period, and the chapter headings suggest the thrust of the argument: "A Trojan Horse," "A Licence to Hate," "Hate Thy Neighbor," "Terror until Victory," and so on. This may sound tendentious, but Karsh has done his research well. He is particularly adept at capturing every instance of Arafatian doublespeak - the "feigned moderation" for Western audiences, the frank avowals to destroy Israel to Arab ones. Thus, after sharing a peace prize with Peace Now in Stockholm in January 1996, he told an Arab audience:
"We plan to eliminate the State of Israel and establish a purely Palestinian state. We will make life unbearable for Jews by psychological warfare and population explosion.... We Palestinians will take over everything, including all of Jerusalem."
This, when Yitzhak Rabin was barely in the grave, Shimon Peres was prime minister, and neither Binyamin Netanyahu nor Ariel Sharon had come along to "spoil the atmosphere."

In quotation after quotation, Karsh also puts paid to the notion that Arafat's lieutenants are moderates or staying influences on the ra'is, or captain, as Arafat likes to be known.

Thus the late Faisal Husseini:
"Though agreeing to declare our state over what is now only 22 percent of Palestine, namely the West Bank and Gaza, our ultimate goal remains the liberation of all of historical Palestine from the river to the sea, even if this means the continuation of the conflict for another thousand years or for many generations."
... By contrast, Barry and Judith Colp Rubin offer a comprehensive and meticulous portrait of the man, dwelling as much on Arafat's inner life and his core convictions as on his strategy and the historical narrative. What results is a wonderfully rich narrative and a still more devastating indictment...

At the heart of the book is a masterful chapter on "Being Yasser Arafat." It explains how Arafat, whose diplomatic unreliability, military incompetence, cruelty and clownishness have been proved time and again, nevertheless succeeded in persuading everyone that he is the indispensable man...

Unlike Karsh, who marshals his evidence to a single purpose, the Rubin book really does bend over backwards to be fair. I wonder if it matters. We have now reached a point where any book written by an Israeli on an Arab subject is likely to be viewed with suspicion. (Unless, of course, it provides a sympathetic account, in which case it will be accepted uncritically.) In a sense, this too is part of Arafat's legacy - the Palestinian appropriation of history and the almost complete delegitimization of Israel's version of events. But readers who still think that fact and truth are related phenomena will find much that is rewarding in these two commendable volumes.