In the Eyes of the Beholder

By Janet Wallach and John Wallach

Lyle Stuart. 465 pp. $19.95

"DON'T FORGET that I am a man of history," Yasser Arafat chides his journalistic biographers, Janet Wallach and John Wallach, when, in an interview in Baghdad after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, they question his ability to survive his embrace of Saddam Hussein.

But in just what way is Arafat, the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, a man of history? Is he like Lenin, who, as Edmund Wilson put it, identified himself with history? Or is he like Trotsky, who, Wilson said, identified history with himself?

A reading of Arafat: In the Eyes of the Beholder suggests that Wilson's Trotsky is the truer, if not altogether accurate, model. Though early in his career as a Palestinian leader Arafat saw his destiny as attached to that of his people, he ultimately came to see his people's destiny as attached to, and even synonymous with, his.

If Arafat's hegira of identification and self-definition were merely a private journey of deluded grandiosity, it would merit neither a book nor our attention. But Arafat's identification of his people with himself has been accepted, wisely or not, by a large percentage of that people, as well as by many others who support or contend with their cause, making the nature of his journey -- and the qualities, powers, proclivities and limitations of the man -- worthy of our examination, not to speak of our concern.

Arafat's origins and personal history have long been the subject of rumor, speculation and myth. Arafat claims, very insistently, to have been born in Jerusalem -- in fact, near the Jews' Western Wall; but his papers suggest a birth in Egypt, far from Palestine, and some say he was born in Gaza.

That Arafat has never married or had children is attributed, by Arafat and those who admire him, to his utter preoccupation with the Palestinian struggle. Those less kindly disposed toward him whisper alternative, more stigmatizing, explanations. The Wallachs -- Janet is a contributing editor of Dossier Magazine and John is foreign editor of the Hearst newspapers -- offer tidbits, drawn from interviews, about liaisons, trysts and at least one true and tragic love involving a woman after whose dramatic assassination Arafat "cried like a baby"; but, as we read quote after conflicting quote, we ultimately come to doubt that we know anything for sure about this personal dimension of his life.

In fact, what we learn in this book about Arafat's personal history is, in general, frustratingly unrevealing. To be sure, we hear about his mother's death when he was 4; multiple marriages by his father, a member of a Gaza clan who, according to one source, "was a little bit mad"; an upbringing by a strict older sister; a longstanding lawsuit by his father in Egypt that drained family resources; and his early years in Cairo and Jerusalem. But the information we get about these matters is too sketchy to leave us with a coherent sense of Arafat's development and earliest influences.

Nor is the information we get about Arafat's personal habits and interests fundamentally illuminating. It's fascinating, to be sure, to read about Arafat watching cartoons at 2 a.m. in the mansion of the PLO's ambassador in Tunis; to learn that Arafat derives particular pleasure from Bugs Bunny, Roadrunner and Tom and Jerry; and to find out that "when the tiny mouse outsmarts the wicked cat, the chairman smirks with pleasure." Much of what we hear from the interviewees about Arafat's style of life, though, is, despite the authors' best efforts, a restatement of the mythic persona he and his colleagues routinely present to journalists: the ascetic revolutionary singlemindedly, selflessly, tirelessly and bravely devoted to the needs of his people.

In the end, after reading the numerous conflicting views about Arafat quoted by the authors, many of them the adoring press releases of his compatriots and some of them the bitter snipes of his sworn enemies, we're likely to retire to our original impressions, tending to see him as either a valorous hero or a cowardly knave.

But the book does afford us -- through the authors' interviews with Arafat and those who have known him as well and through its accounts of his dealings with confederates, competitors and various world leaders -- important insights into Arafat's qualities of mind, character and behavior that have far-reaching implications for his stewardship of the Palestinian cause and for his trustworthiness as a partner in negotiations.

Arafat's instinctive tendency to see his people's destiny as synonymous with his own has implications that are particularly profound.

That tendency is evident in Arafat's personalization of battles and negotiations. Speaking of Gen. Ariel Sharon's efforts against the PLO during Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, for example, Arafat exclaimed to the authors: "With all his power he failed to invade Beirut! With all his huge forces, he failed to invade me!"

Arafat's sense that he is the embodiment not only of the PLO but also of the Palestinian people has made it immensely difficult for him to advocate -- with energy, clarity and sustained conviction, and both publicly and within the PLO -- the kinds of dream-rending compromises that would have to be made by Palestinians in order for them to achieve a state of their own. Were he to do so, even for purely tactical reasons, his harder-line rivals in the PLO would immediately be provoked to action, and he might be ousted from his position of leadership. Such an ouster would be unacceptable to Arafat not only because few leaders are willing to give up power, but also because, it seems, Arafat can't imagine a PLO without himself at its helm. The prospects for truly serious and sustained compromises by Arafat in the future seem, on this basis, dim.

Nor does another of Arafat's qualities repeatedly revealed in this book -- his duplicity -- give cause for optimism about the likelihood that he can ever be a successful negotiating partner. His entire known history, from his early days as a student organizer to the most recent period, is replete with examples of double dealing and double crosses, of telling people what he thinks they want to hear even if what he tells them utterly contradicts what he just said to someone else. ARAFAT: In the Eyes of the Beholder is a product of a prodigious effort of reportage involving numerous interviews with Arafat, PLO officials, regional leaders and Americans involved in Middle East diplomacy. The book contains, as a result, a considerable amount of information about recent events in the Arab-Israeli conflict, including a good description of the origins of the PLO; material about the significant degree to which Arafat has been connected to the terrorist activities carried out by the Black September organization; details, some new, about the behind-the-scenes negotiations that led to Arafat's December 1988 statement accepting Israel and rejecting terrorism; and descriptions of the fierce disagreements within the PLO and the difficulties faced by Arafat in contending with those disagreements, particularly from the hardest-liners.

Unfortunately, the book also contains errors of history and fact. For example, Jerusalem's population when the British occupied it during World War I was not 90 percent Arab, as the authors assert, but, by the best available estimates, more than 50 percent Jewish; Masada is not, as they write, in the West Bank, and the portion of its territory that Jordan lost to Israel in the 1967 war was much less than the half the book says it lost. Although this is not a scholarly work but a journalistic one, a reader could be forgiven for wishing that the authors had invested more energy than they did in studying the history of the region and its peoples, particularly since the conflict that is at the heart of their subject is at least as mired in matters ancient as it is in recent diplomatic and military maneuverings.

Few books on the Arab-Israeli conflict are written by authors without political positions of their own, and this one is no exception. It is, in fact, a product of passionate journalism; the authors, both Jews, feel deeply that the PLO cannot be ignored and that Arafat genuinely wants peace and must be dealt with by Israel. Nevertheless, they have worked hard to solicit views not only from Arafat's supporters but also from his opponents, and provide us with a range of material that is varied and rich enough to enable us to come to our own conclusions about Arafat and the PLO.

One has to assume that both Arafat and his PLO colleagues expected favorable treatment and good publicity from the Wallachs, at least in part of the authors' earlier, sympathetic writings about the Palestinian uprising, and that it was for this reason that they afforded them a rare degree of access and time. Whether or not the book will satisfy Arafat's expectations is something I assume the Wallachs will eventually discover.

And we'll all eventually discover whether or not Arafat will survive his embrace of Saddam Hussein and continue to lead the PLO, and whether or not that embrace, which appears to enjoy the enthusiastic support of most Palestinians, will undermine the Palestinians' ability to achieve their goals. Arafat has bounced back from numerous defeats, and the Palestinians have persisted in their struggle despite repeated betrayals by their fellow Arabs and overwhelming setbacks. This time, they will have to convience the Saudis and the other oil-rich states that are now threatened by Saddam Hussein that they should continue to support their cause. More importantly, they will have to convince the Israelis that they can be trusted partners in negotiations.

How the Israelis could be convinced of that is unclear. After the Palestinians' repeated calls for Saddam Hussein to deluge Israel with storms of poison gas, there is little willingness in that country to trust the Palestinians in any way; even the most peace-seeking, liberal Israelis have, in shocked despair, abandoned their efforts to reach compromises with Palestinians they had thought were moderate and willing to accept their existence. The crisis in the Persian Gulf may usher in a new Ice Age of Arab-Israeli diplomacy; or it may serve as a transition to unprecedented circumstances that neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians -- nor, indeed, Yassar Arafat -- could possibly predict.

Walter Reich, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, is the editor of "Origins of Terrorism: Psychologies, Ideologies, Theologies, States of Mind."