Insights into PLO leader, Lebanon war

Arafat: Terrorist or Peacemaker?, by Alan Hart. London: Sidgwick & Jackson/Merrimack Publishers' Circle. 501 pp. $21.95. Under Siege: P. L. O. Decisionmaking During the 1982 War, by Rashid Khalidi. New York: Columbia University Press. 241 pp. $22.50. Perhaps no international figure has been as stereotyped as Yasser Arafat. And no contemporary guerrilla movement has been as controversial as his Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Myths have been created around both. But two new books provide deeper insights into the man, the organization he has headed for almost 20 years, and their impact on modern history.

Alan Hart's ``Arafat'' is an irrepressible figure who, sometimes wistfully and sometimes angrily, talks with candor about strife in the embryonic stages of the Palestinian movement, subsequent strategy disputes over military versus political options, secret diplomatic efforts, the agony of losing friends and fighters because of his decisions -- and his mistakes. He becomes a three-dimensional figure, more than just the scruffy beard, checkered kaffiyeh headdress, and holstered pistol that are his symbols.

Biographies have been written before, but most were gleaned from old newspaper clippings and the rabid Middle East rumor mill. Hart, a former British television reporter, advertises the fact that he worked in cooperation with the chairman and the PLO's top leadership on this psychological profile, which might make it suspect. Yet he interjects sufficient skepticism to keep it from being propaganda.

``Arafat'' covers the entire history of the 38-year Arab-Israeli dispute, and all the leading characters of that era -- including Americans and Soviets -- pass through its pages. One of the most interesting sections offers new information on the inner workings of Black September, the PLO terrorist wing that committed an assortment of hijackings and the infamous attack on Israeli athletes during the 1972 Munich Olympics. Overall, ``Arafat'' is an informative read.

``Under Siege'' covers the most recent, and most devastating, period of PLO history, the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and its aftermath. Rashid Khalidi, a US-born Palestinian who lived in Beirut during the siege and now teaches at Columbia University, chronicles and dissects the politics behind the longest war Israel has been involved in since its creation in 1948. His scholarly study traces the flurry of diplomatic activity and debates that led to the agonizing decision by the PLO to leave Lebanon.

The 1982 war was a watershed because of its impact on all involved: Israel, the Palestinians, the United States, and the Arab bloc. For the first time, Israel witnessed mass domestic opposition during wartime. Khalidi concludes that ``as a result of this novel demonstration of Israeli military incapacity . . . there is now doubt whether Israel can sustain its former role of preeminent regional superpower.'' While that may be debatable, he is correct that the Israelis ``are unlikely to allow themselves once again to be dragged into the kind of adventure launched . . . in 1982.''

For the PLO, whose guerrillas were finally withdrawn from Beirut to eight camps spread throughout the Arab world, the outcome diminished both its visibility and effectiveness. And the subsequent rebellion and split within its ranks -- in part because of dissension over the evacuation -- also hurt Arafat's clout. Yet the PLO did ``win'' something, especially since it never expected to better the Israelis.

``The untold story of the 1982 war is how over a period of 10 weeks, generals who had never lost a battle, and who had at their disposal a potential force of half a million men . . . proved unable . . . to decisively defeat less than 15,000 men, mostly poorly armed militia,'' Khalidi wrote.

And for the US, the invasion ``marked the end of an era in the Middle East, where the US has long managed to maintain its dominance, while only rarely having to flex its own muscles.''

As Khalidi correctly points out, the full impact of that grisly summer has yet to be felt -- either in the Middle East or in the US. And as both authors conclude, no matter what the obstacles in his path, Arafat will remain a central and essential character in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Robin Wright, a former Monitor special correspondent in Beirut, is the author of ``Sacred Rage: The Wrath of Militant Islam.''

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