Comment July 2002

A Brief History of Yasir Arafat

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

He has proved to be a mediocre guerrilla leader and a terrible administrator but a brilliant image crafter and morale builder. Early in his career he dressed in Western suits; it was at the 1956 International Students' Congress in Prague that he first publicly wore a kaffiyeh, or head scarf—a gesture that caused an immediate sensation among the Westerners in attendance. (According to Aburish, each morning Arafat would spend nearly an hour folding his kaffiyeh so that when it hung to his shoulders it resembled the map of Palestine.) The army fatigues, the pistol, and the three-day beard came later, but, like the kaffiyeh, all were carefully considered symbols. Arafat's greatest moments have always been publicity coups—appearing on the cover of Time in 1968, speaking at the United Nations in 1974—rather than military victories. His primary goals have always been to create and nurture what might be called the Palestinian brand and to rally the Palestinian psyche around himself.

In 1974 a Yugoslav film crew was sent to film Arafat leading a raid against Israel. (Early in his career Arafat did take part in attacks; he is not the physical coward that some have in recent years made him out to be.) The crew waited for two days at the appointed spot on the Israeli border, but Arafat never showed up. When crew members finally tracked him down in his office, in Damascus, they complained about having wasted their time. Arafat offered to stage a mock offensive for them on the spot. He had his aides rush in as if in the heat of battle, while he shouted fake orders and pointed furiously at maps. It was a brilliant performance, much appreciated by the film crew, and the director congratulated Arafat on his acting skills.

When Arab leaders have tried to wrest control of the Palestinian struggle, Arafat has struck back. In the winter of 1977-1978 Anwar Sadat addressed the Israeli parliament and began peace talks with Israel. Arafat responded on March 11, when an eleven-man Fatah hit squad, after landing their boats just south of Haifa, killed thirty-four Israelis and wounded eighty more. Israel retaliated with an attack on Palestinian bases in southern Lebanon. Arafat led the fierce Palestinian counterattack himself. The series of confrontations inflamed Arab public opinion, led to Sadat's isolation, and boosted the heroic image of Arafat and the Palestinians.

Arafat does not seem to care what sort of Palestinian state he creates—whether it is Marxist, democratic, or fundamentalist. He has no political ideology and does not seek to lead his people in any particular direction. He embodies all the ideological factions within the Palestinian population and thus is able to rally them all.

He and his army have brought disorder wherever they have settled. In 1969 they based themselves in Jordan, where they soon began terrorizing the local people, running extortion rackets against businesses, and undermining the Jordanian regime. Black September followed in 1970: Jordan's King Hussein launched a huge and bloody war against the Palestinians, killing thousands and leading to the expulsion of Arafat and his army. The same sort of thing happened in Lebanon a decade later, with Palestinian thugs looting banks and destroying the local government. The Syrians finally came in to restore order, in what became known as Black June. Arafat has somehow survived his many crises—battles with the Jordanians, the Syrians, the Egyptians, the Lebanese Christians, and, of course, the Israelis. And each time, instead of being held even partly responsible for the widespread suffering his actions have caused his people, he has been lionized as the figure who will someday bring deliverance from that suffering. This is a monumental political achievement.

After the Oslo accords were signed, leaving Arafat in charge of administering much of the West Bank and Gaza, his armies began to prey on Palestinians, as they had on Jordanians and Lebanese years before. He would not fire those responsible—either because he doesn't like firing people or because he feared alienating certain sectors of the Palestinian populace. At the same time, he tried to control every detail of Palestinian life—insisting, for example, that he personally review individual building permits and decide whose house could have an addition. All this subverted efficient administration, and his popularity plummeted.

The immediate threat to Arafat's control during this period did not come from Arab leaders. The problem was money. Arafat was chronically short of the funds he needed to maintain his bureaucratic machine, and the problem was getting worse. Many Palestinians believe that he participated at Oslo only because, having supported Iraq in the Gulf War, he had alienated his financial backers (chiefly Saudi Arabia and some European governments) and had little choice. He was thus, they argue, forced into signing what he and most Palestinians regarded as a terrible deal. It may be that the way to isolate Arafat politically—an action that is surely necessary if a workable settlement is ever to be reached in the Middle East—is not to attack him head-on, providing him with yet another of the near-death experiences that seem only to recharge him. The solution may instead be to choke off his money supply—the one thing that props up his authority in times of calm.

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David Brooks is a New York Times columnist.

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