by Manuel Hassassian
Arafat: a Political Biography is an exclusive, timely and revealing book that meticulously unravels Arafat's own personal story of the diplomatic breakthrough with Israel, symbolized by the Washington handshake. Alan Hart served as a linkman between Arafat and Peres, and was successful in taping two-hundred hours of conversation with Arafat. Even so, he says, "Arafat is a man of secrets. He could not have survived the many attempts on his life to date if he had not wrapped himself in mystery."
The book portrays the inner life of Arafat chronologically, methodically and vividly. The dramatic story of Arafat is presented in depth by the author in cooperation with the top leadership of the PLO - Khaled al-Hassan, Hani al-Hassan, Khalil al-Wazir and Salah Khalaf. He analyzes the dynamics of the PLO and its survival against all odds. He also describes Arafat's imperative role in keeping intact the rank and file of the PLO in the face of all attempts at the disintegration of the organization, and in preserving its legitimacy vis-a-vis the Palestinian people in his endeavor for political accommodation with Israel.
Arafat, who has survived several assassination attempts, has contrived to convince his top political aides, along with the majority of the Palestinians to make "unthinkable concessions to Israel for the sake of peace." Of course, Arafat's remarkable courage and steadfastness had already made him the undisputed leader of the Palestinians and one of the respected leaders of modem times.
It is important to note that the laborious effort exerted by the author in interviewing Arafat over a period of fifteen years adds to the credibility of the book and makes it mandatory reading for specialists and laypeople alike. In fact, the historic and political expose of the Middle East through the person of Arafat, and his political journey towards Palestinian resurgence, is the essence of the book.
The book opens with a prologue updating current Middle Eastern politics and diplomacy. A long introduction follows after which come twenty-four chapters divided into three main parts. The first deals with a profile of Arafat and a brief account of the causes of the Palestinian problem. The second treats the underground years, Arafat's early life and his confrontation with the intelligence services of the front-line Arab states. The third deals with his struggle to keep the Palestinian cause alive in the Arab world, the international community and vis-a-vis Israel.
In gathering this wealth of information, the author has depended on exclusive interviews with top PLO leaders, such as Abu Jihad and Abu Iyad (code names for Khalil al-Wazir and Salah Khalaf). In addition, the author has extracted many inside stories from Intissar al-Wazir (Abu Jihad's wife), Ina'm Arafat (Arafat's sister) and Suha Tawil (Arafat's wife). A major credit goes to the late Khaled al-Hassan, who was the top advisor to Arafat, for providing the author with contacts with Arafat. One exclusive section of the book recounts the secret love of Suha-Tawil and Arafat, investing him with another dimension - that of the simple human being aspiring for a normal family life. In this, Hart has relied heavily on the information provided by Mrs. Arafat. She tells of the four years of agony and social pressures that both she and her husband went through before they disclosed their secret marriage. The author concludes with an assessment of Arafat's place in history and how as a "peacemaker [he] assisted Israel in saving itself from itself."
The book is basically about two journeys. The main one is Arafat's into the reality of the existence of Israel as the military superpower of the region, and the need for the Palestinians to come to terms with it by making "unthinkable concessions to it, if they were ever to achieve even a minimum of justice." The other is the author's own journey into the reality of Yasser Arafat as the leader and the individual. In his opening chapter, Hart says, "when you don't know Arafat you can't like him," but as he progresses along his course, he discovers there are two men with the same name: one is the Arafat as stereotyped by Israel's propaganda machine "with bottomless hate in his heart;" the other is the real Arafat who is the chairman of the PLO and the symbolic leader of the Palestinian people.
The book furnishes a vivid, detailed description of the history of the PLO since its inception and even earlier, when Arafat and his top aides were students at Cairo University in Egypt. This period, which is well¬ documented, reflects Arafat's early activities in Egypt during President Nasser's era.
The author also dwells on the impact of the 1967 war along with the refugee problem on the Palestinian leadership. Then follows the PLO's showdown with Hussein in Amman in 1970, Arafat's leadership of the Palestinian National Council, his speech at the U.N. in 1974, and his position on the Camp David Accords of 1979 and Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982. The author provides a detailed analysis of Arafat's policies during the invasion and of his handling of the Fatah dissidents - Abu Musa and Abu Nidal ¬thus, giving further credibility to the book.
With the exit from Lebanon in 1982, the Palestinian leadership suffered from a political vacuum, a fact which prompted Arafat to turn to the Occupied Territories. The author covers this period of 1982-1987 with a detailed analysis of the developments - regionally and internationally - that led to the Intifada which, since its eruption on December 8, 1987, has defied the status quo and opened new avenues for peace in the region. In fact, it has come to the fore as the most complex part of the Arab-Israeli conflict, urgently influencing international, and to a lesser degree Israeli, public opinion. The dramatic impact of the Intifada has brought about the creation of universal awareness of the "unsustainability of the status quo" (i.e., the Israeli occupation). However, neither this awareness, nor the Intifada's own remarkable unanimity and staying power, could have been accomplished without the mobilization of the Palestinians. Conditions were now ripe for the PLO to consider what was once "political suicide": negotiating a peace agreement with Israel.
Hart devotes an important section to a clear exposition of Arafat's position vis-a-vis the Gulf crisis and the Gulf War, refuting many of the distorted analyses that have stereotyped Arafat and the PLO as Saddam's stooges. He justifies Arafat's position and his intentions in settling the Iraq/Kuwait conflict through Arab good offices and mediation. He also shows how American and British diplomacy maneuvered the framing of Saddam to the point of no return. He maintains the Gulf War was a well-orchestrated showdown with Iraq in order to strip the latter of its military power and political clout in the Gulf region, thus paving the way for a total control by the U.S. of this region and its oil.
Indeed, Palestinian and Arab emotions were with Saddam, and Arafat could not have alienated himself by being on the other side of the fence. This sense of pragmatism by Arafat boosted his status and paved the way for future diplomatic endeavors that have culminated in the Madrid Conference, Washington, Oslo and the Cairo agreements of 1994. In the context of the Gaza-and-Jericho-first plan, the author gives a meticulous description of the Arafat/Rabin controversy over the area of Jericho, a wealth of details reflecting the complexities of the peace process.
Arafat: a Political Biography is a well-documented book, professionally researched and written, which makes it an invaluable reference work on the Palestinian cause and leadership. The author should be commended for such a comprehensive biography of Arafat, the man who led his nation from revolution to state-building.