PLO history traces Arafat's many roles

September 07, 1994|By Stanley A. Blumberg | Stanley A. Blumberg,Special to The Sun

Yasser Arafat, the personification of the Palestine Liberation Organization, has assumed a new and uncharacteristic role as a peacemaker. His historic agreement with Israel's Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to create autonomous Palestinian enclaves in Jericho and on the Gaza Strip has confounded both his friends and his adversaries, the latter including not only Israelis but radical Arabs and fundamentalist Muslims who don't know what to make of Mr. Arafat's apparent rebirth as a moderate.

Does Mr. Arafat mean it? Barry Rubin is well-qualified to write the first in-depth account of the PLO's ideology, strategy and tactics, its relationship to other Arab states and its confrontations with Israel. He teaches at Hebrew and Tel Aviv universities. His books include "Cauldron of Turmoil: America in the Middle East and Paved with Good Intentions," and "The American Experience in Iran."

Dr. Rubin leads us through the Byzantine politics of the PLO and Mr. Arafat's many roles. The author recounts that the PLO's chief was once funded by Egypt and Syria. Later, working for the latter, Mr. Arafat initiated numerous terrorist attacks. The chairman controls Fatah, and this organization "sought to show itself as a group of self-sacrificing heroes transforming the Arab world's date of defeat and fatalism into a revolutionary storm." He was no moderate then. As Dr. Rubin points out, this was part of his appeal.

The troops were also kept in line by the use of terror. Dr. Rubin recalls that after Elias Freij, Bethlehem's mayor, suggested a truce to facilitate negotiations, Mr. Arafat warned that anyone calling for the uprising's end "exposed himself to the bullets of his own people." The mayor recanted and went into hiding.

Mr. Arafat founded Fatah, the core organization of the PLO, in 1964. Its avowed purpose then was the destruction of the state of Israel. At that time, Jordan controlled the West Bank (Judea and Samaria), and the Gaza Strip was occupied by Egypt. But, as Dr. Rubin explains, Arafat's ambition was not limited to those territories. In the 1968 Palestine Charter (usually known as the covenant) remains the governing doctrine of the PLO.

As Dr. Rubin explains, `The charter claimed all of Palestine and insisted that all of Israel be destroyed, rebuffing any idea of compromise, negotiation or coexistence with it."

Then what to make of Mr. Arafat's seeming about-face? In spite of the peace process, the covenant presumably remains the governing doctrine of the PLO and cannot be changed except by a two-thirds majority of the members. That has not happened, even though prior to the historic Rabin-Arafat handshake last September, the latter promised to a PLO convention to revoke sections of the covenant that were offensive to Israel.

Dr. Rubin begins with a recounting of the 1966 meeting of 400 Palestinian delegates in the Intercontinental Hotel in the east side of divided Jerusalem. Mr. Arafat, busy building Fatah, was not there.

Mr. Arafat and his colleagues had eclectic political views, Dr. Rubin points out. They included pious Muslims, with links to Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, to others with links to Marxism. In the early 1960s, Mr. Arafat was actively recruiting members. He set up military training camps in Syria and Jordan -- with the permission of both governments.

In the events leading up to the 1967 war, a PLO leader, according to Dr. Rubin, said the organization was "ready for battle . . . for the liberation of the usurped homeland." But the rout of the Arab armies led to a re-evaluation of tactics. The emphasis shifted to terrorist attacks.

"Between 1969 and 1985," Dr. Rubin states, "PLO groups committed over 8,000 terrorist acts -- mainly in Israel, but at least 435 abroad -- and killed more than 650 Israelis . . . and hundreds of people in other countries."

But long-term failure was weakening Mr. Arafat. Dr. Rubin says that unless he could make some kind of a deal with Israel, his days were numbered. His championing of the cause of Iraq's Saddam Hussein angered the Saudis, who stopped funding his activities. The PLO's influence in Gaza and the West Bank was eroding. And its radical rival, Hamas, was gaining strength.

Fortunately for Mr. Arafat, the Labor party returned to power in Israel. Unlike Likud, it was willing to yield territory for peace, even with the unchanged PLO covenant.

"Revolution Until Victory" is an important book. An essential issue, however, is whether the Jewish state be more or less secure as a result of the Israel-PLO agreement. Dr. Rubin doesn't answer this question.

Stanley A. Blumberg is co-author of a book on Israeli intelligence, "The Survival Factor."

BOOK REVIEW

Title:"Revolution Until Victory? The Politics of the PLO"

Author: Barry Rubin

Publisher: Harvard University Press

Length, price: 270 pages, $24.95

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