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Arafat, the Implacable Radical: Written with great clarity... but without grace
on March 3, 2008
Arafat's War: The Man and His Battle for Israeli Conquest
By Efraim Karsh
3.5 out of 5 stars
Although this book seems to be marketed as a biography, do not be mistaken. This book fails to delve deeply enough into Yasser Arafat's upbringing or psyche to be considered as such. Instead, Efraim Karsh's work should be principally read to understand the hostile and implacable mentality of Arafat his Fatah / Palestinian Authority colleagues towards Israel, particularly during the Oslo years and the subsequent breakout of the Second Intifadah, which Karsh more accurately dubs "Arafat's war of terror" (9).
Where this book excels is in the clarity of its argument. Karsh cogently concludes that Arafat never intended to implement a peaceful settlement with Israel in the form of the Two-State Solution but rather desired to eliminate the State of Israel, whether by violence or by the coerced implementation of the Right of Return. Despite being party to the Oslo Accords, Arafat was never willing to make the transition from revolutionary to statesman. He always maintained the use of violence as a political tool, thus violating the spirit of Oslo.
In the words of Karsh, "From the moment of his arrival in Gaza, Arafat set out to build up an extensive terrorist infrastructure in flagrant violation of the Oslo accords and in total disregard of the overriding reason he had been brought from Tunisia [his base of operations in exile], namely, to lay the groundwork for Palestinian statehood" (p. 6). Among Arafat's violations of Oslo:
- Permitting and participating in incitement against Israel
- Failure to disarm Palestinian terrorist groups, principally Hamas and Islamic Jihad
- Reconstruction of the PLO's old terrorist apparatus in the West Bank and Gaza
- Creation of a larger Palestinian police force than permitted by the agreement, turning it into a virtual army
- Acquisition and smuggling of prohibited weapons into the territories using international money earmarked for the economic benefit of the Palestinian people
- Tacit support of terrorism against Israeli civilians when not supporting it outright
- Application of mass violence to achieve political goals, primarily the establishment of a Palestinian state within the territories and ultimately over all of Israel
While Karsh's account of Arafat is forthright and illuminating, it does suffer from some conspicuous flaws. One of the principal flaws of the book is the vitriolic tone Karsh consistently employs with regards to Arafat. For example, Karsh labels Arafat a homosexual and a "congenital liar" (p. 15) and physically characterizes him as "short (5 feet 4 inches tall), chubby, soft, with bulging eyes and [a] protruding lower lip" (p. 23). Although these assertions are more than likely true, this invective seems misplaced in what is supposed to be a serious academic debate.
Furthermore, Karsh's work suffers from a lack of "evenhandedness." Take note, by evenhandedness I am not referring to "moral symmetry." Instead, what I criticize Karsh for is his virtual inability to hold Israel responsible for any of Oslo's failings. Not once does he mention Israel failing to fulfill any of Oslo's provisions. By failing to take real note of Israeli failures vis-à-vis the Palestinians or other wrongs committed by the Israeli government or its citizens (such as the 1994 Baruch Goldstein massacre in the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron), Karsh once again takes away from the seriousness of this academic debate. And to me, that is quite unfortunate given the desperate need for a more dispassionate analysis of Yasser Arafat, who has been falsely lionized as a heroic resistance fighter.
In his achievement though, Karsh is able to characterize Arafat for who he really was--a self-interested extremist whose ultimate goal was not compromise, but destruction. For this reason, readers interested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, who desire an account that contradicts the commonly-held and false view of Arafat as a hero and "man of peace," should read this book despite its imperfections.
The main conclusion I reached from this book: Although Israel may have violated certain provisions of the Oslo Accords, the Israeli government and the great majority of Israeli people truly believed in the spirit of the agreement. On the other hand, Arafat and his PLO compatriots calculatingly and systematically contravened provisions of the Oslo Accords because they never believed in the spirit of the agreement. Peaceful coexistence with two states side by side was not their dream. Israel's disappearance was forefront in their mind and their violent aggression corresponded to this mentality.