A Brief History of Yasir Arafat

The PLO leader is a terrible administrator but a brilliant image crafter

Yasir Arafat claims that he was born in Jerusalem, but he was actually born in Cairo. He claims to belong to the prominent Jerusalem family of Husseini, but he is at best only distantly related to it. He claims that he turned down a chance to go to the University of Texas, but according to one biographer, the Palestinian-born writer Saïd K. Aburish, it is highly unlikely that he was ever accepted. He claims to have disabled ten Israeli armored personnel carriers in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, but Israel didn't even have ten APCs in the sector he was in. He claims to have made millions as a businessman in Kuwait, but this, too, is almost certainly untrue.

Obviously, Arafat is a congenital liar. But there's more to it than that: his lies are all designed to create an aura of romance around himself and the Palestinian people. Arafat is the most bizarre political leader in the world today, in that he has obliterated all considerations of ordinary living and has fused himself completely with his cause. He's never had anything like a regular home life. He has no interest in comforts, possessions, or normal pleasures. He has no interest in social issues, books, or cultural matters. Aburish says that Arafat has been to a restaurant exactly once in the past forty years. The life of total political commitment has turned him into a surpassingly strange creature, and he has a rapacious hunger to possess the Palestinian cause entirely by himself.

If you wanted to talk psychobabble, you'd blame his father. Arafat's mother died in 1933, when he was five. His father was a small-scale textile trader who spent much of his life obsessed by a tortuous and ultimately unsuccessful lawsuit to reclaim some land in Egypt that had been in his family 150 years before. He was not close to his son, and sent him as a boy to live in Jerusalem for several years with relatives. The two were soon estranged. Arafat later changed his name (his given name is Mohammed Abdel Rahman Abdel Raouf Arafat al Qudua al Husseini). When his father died, Arafat—remarkably, in view of Arab custom—did not bother to attend the funeral.

Arafat was a poor student, but he immersed himself in politics. As a student at what is now Cairo University, he was a member of both the Federation of Palestinian Students and the Egyptian Union of Students, which was supposed to be closed to Palestinians. He started a magazine called The Voice of Palestine, which is said to have been vitriolic and crude. At one point he filled out some initial forms to emigrate to Canada, but his life was already taken up with public speaking, lobbying, and political agitation, and he never followed through with the plan.

From the Arab defeat in the 1948 war Arafat drew the conclusion that has been at the heart of his political success ever since: Palestinians should not rely on Arab governments for help but should control the fight against Israel themselves. He has never really wavered from that conviction. He has turned down money from Arab governments whenever there were strings attached. He has vociferously clashed with Arab leaders—from Egypt's Anwar Sadat to Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah—who have tried to assume leadership of the Palestinian cause.

Arafat's first such battle was against the Palestine Liberation Organization, which was set up in 1964 by various Arab countries to coordinate Palestinian activities. Arafat regarded the group as a puppet organization and thus aligned Fatah, the movement he had started, with more-radical circles—with Algerian revolutionaries, with Che Guevara, with the Vietnamese Communists. In order to upstage the PLO, Arafat launched a series of raids into Israel. As military exercises they were fiascoes: an attempt to blow up a canal failed, and when a raiding party trying to get into Israel was intercepted by a Jordanian patrol, one Fatah soldier was killed. But as publicity exercises they were fantastic successes, and they captured the imagination of the Palestinian people.

Sensing a threat, Arab leaders tried variously to quell or co-opt Arafat. Hafez al-Assad, at the time the Defense Minister of Syria, had him arrested in 1966 for a murder in Damascus. (It is not clear whether Arafat was even in the room when the murder took place.) Assad had him convicted and wanted him executed, but by then Arafat had a potent reputation. He was quietly released.

Arafat's go-it-alone strategy was vindicated by the crushing defeat of Arab governments in the 1967 war. Fatah did not take part in the war and thus was untouched by the disaster. Some Palestinians were so demoralized by the Arab defeat that they were willing to accept a Palestinian state made up of the West Bank and Gaza. Arafat was not. He made public appearances in the West Bank and, in spite of his Egyptian accent, succeeded in mobilizing young men displaced by the war. He soon began launching more raids against Israel. On March 21, 1968, his soldiers fought a small battle in which twenty-eight Israelis and more than a hundred Palestinians were killed. This "victory" rallied the Palestinians at a time when no one else was acting against the Israelis. Arafat, through Fatah, became the head of the PLO and has since been the undisputed leader of the Palestinian cause.

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David Brooks is a New York Times columnist.

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