A leader and his cause Baumgarter: Arafat: Zwischen Kampf und Diplomatie [Arafat: Between Struggle and Diplomacy]
Helga Baumgarten is a well-known Middle East expert in Germany. She teaches political science at Birzeit University and has lived and worked in the West Bank and Jerusalem for many years. Her most notable book, Palنstina: Befreiung in den Staat [Palestine: Liberation into Statehood] (Suhrkamp, 1991), has been acclaimed as an accessible and detailed history of the Palestinian national movement.
In the book under review, a biography of the leader of the PLO and now chairman of the Palestinian Authority (PA), she set out to write for a broad German audience, aiming to present the Middle East conflict and its implications for the Palestinians. She attempts to offer background information and analysis about a region and a conflict that are often in the news, but which very few people really understand. She points out the importance of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict for German self-perceptions and Germany’s political position vis-à-vis the situation in the Middle East (p. 11).
The book is organized chronologically, starting with Arafat’s background and youth and concluding with a letter interview he gave to the author from his destroyed compound in Ramallah in April 2002. Between these two points, Baumgarten covers the emergence of the Palestinian liberation movement, the 1967 war, the war in Lebanon (1982), the developments leading to the first intifada in 1987, the position of the Palestinian leadership during the Gulf War, the Oslo process, and finally the first eighteen months of the al-Aqsa intifada. She provides the reader with rich detail on the history of the Palestinian national movement and Arafat’s role over many decades in shaping this movement and its political decisions.
The book is as much a history of the PLO as it is a political biography of its leader. The author presents the complicated moves of the diverse actors in the conflict and the developments inside and outside of Palestine since the early 1940s. In particular, the last chapters about the first intifada, the Oslo process, and the outbreak of the second intifada offer a concise history and analysis of the more recent developments in the conflict, and thus help to achieve her goal to make the situation in the Middle East more transparent to an interested lay audience.
The reader expects detailed information about, and discussion of, Arafat as a person and a leader. The author, however, relies mainly on secondary sources by other “biographers,” in particular Alan Hart (Arafat: Terrorist or Peacemaker? [London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1984]), as well as on publications by Fatah and the PLO and Arafat’s public speeches. The bibliography does not list any Arabic sources, and quotations in the text are from PLO-related journals only. I did not find any personal interview material or even anecdotes from the people surrounding Arafat. Hence, the book does not provide insights about Arafat or his motivations.
Because Baumgarten is an “insider” to Palestinian politics, I expected a more critical assessment of Arafat as a political personality and of his political movement as the main Palestinian actor in the struggle for liberation. There is no doubt that the history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has been dominated by Israel and the United States and that the Palestinians mostly have been reacting to this domination. Nevertheless, one can argue that the problems of the Palestinian leadership, in particular the personality of Arafat, have been obstacles at times, even though Arafat has been a successful leader for the most part. He is a skilled tactician and controls the Palestinian leadership on many levels, but at times he has miscalculated (at the expense of his people, just like other leaders) and one hardly could call him a promoter of democracy. Where criticism is expressed, it is cautious and indirect, as if the author did not want to take a stronger stand.
The lack of sources to substantiate claims and to provide follow-up information in the text, as well as the alternating use of footnotes and in-text citations, are obstacles to using the book as an academic text. In the end, it is not a new biography of the PLO and PA leader, although Arafat’s name and picture on the cover serve to catch the attention of potential buyers. Despite these disappointments, the book is written with much knowledge of and sympathy for the Palestinians. It is fortunate that a mainstream German publisher has published a work from this perspective and not shied away from possible criticism. And for German readers with a new interest in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, it does provide a useful historical background.
Juliane Hammer is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.