Courtesy Reuters

Being Yasir Arafat: A Portrait of Palestine's President

In This Review

Yasir Arafat: A Political Biography

By Barry Rubin, Judith Colp Rubin
Oxford University Press, 2003
325 pp. $28.00

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

By Efraim Karsh
Grove Press, 2003
304 pp. $25.00

Yasir Arafat may be the most polarizing man alive today. To his detractors, he is an unscrupulous terrorist, responsible for the murders of thousands of innocent civilians; to his supporters, he is the embodiment of Palestinian nationalism and the person who placed the Palestinian cause on the world stage. Depending on one's vantage point, both the archterrorist and father-of-the-nation portrayals are accurate. But like all stereotypes, they tell us more about the person making the assertion than they do about the subject. Rare is the work on Arafat that is nuanced, objective, and analytic.

Two new biographies by Israeli scholars, unfortunately, do not stray from the depressing norm, painting Arafat solely, in the colorful language of one of the authors, Efraim Karsh, as a "bigoted and megalomaniacal extremist blinded by anti-Jewish hatred ... and profoundly obsessed with violence." Neither biography is without value. Their biggest contribution, however, is less to add to our knowledge about Arafat than to document the broad consensus about him now in place in Israel: that he is an incorrigible terrorist and liar who used the peace process as a "strategic deception" in his goal to destroy the Jewish state and who alone scuttled negotiations in order to launch a terror war. If one wants to understand why Israel will never again negotiate with Arafat, and why the Israeli government recently announced its formal intention to "remove" him, these books are a good place to start.


Although Arafat has had a propensity to re-create his life story whenever convenient, the basics of his youth are well known. His parents had recently moved to Cairo from Palestine when he was born in 1929. Arafat periodically visited Jerusalem, but he was raised in Cairo, and to this day he speaks with an Egyptian accent. Although distantly related on his mother's side to the aristocratic Husseini family of Jerusalem, he was raised in modest surroundings more reminiscent of his father's Gazan upbringing. Arafat spent his early professional career as

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