Holocaust Museum reverses self, offers VIP tour to Arafat State Department, board backed move

anger, dismay widespread

January 21, 1998|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Having finally agreed to extend an invitation to Yasser Arafat for an official visit this week, reversing an earlier decision to deny him a VIP tour, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum is now waiting to see if the Palestinian leader accepts.

In Paris yesterday, Arafat said he was "keen to visit" the museum: "I will study this invitation."

Bowing to pressure from the Clinton administration and many of its own board members, the Holocaust Museum moved this week to reverse a decision to deny Arafat an official visit.

The museum's chairman, Miles Lerman, "now regrets his [earlier] decision and considers it a mistake," said vice chairman Ruth B. Mandel. She said Lerman was first inclined to allow the visit, but "he was not encouraged to feel this was a good idea" by a small group with which he consulted, including the museum's director, Walter Reich. Reich declined to comment.

Museum spokeswoman Shana Penn said Arafat's tour, if it takes place, would be conducted Friday by Lerman and Mandel.

Arafat is to meet tomorrow with President Clinton, who held talks yesterday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu, speaking to reporters afterward, echoed some of the sentiments of those Jewish groups who have been cool to the proposed visit.

"I would hope that the first thing that would happen is that there would be an immediate change in the unfortunate habit of the controlled Palestinian press to both deny the Holocaust and denigrate it by casting aspersions on Israel as a Nazi state," he said.

The on-again, off-again museum invitation has sparked anger and dismay.

"At this point, it's so heavy with mistakes, emotion and sensitivities that, if he does it now, it will lose all its impact and just be a big media show," said Abraham H. Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League and a member of the museum's board.

The idea for Arafat's visit came from Aaron D. Miller, deputy to the State Department's special Middle East envoy, Dennis Ross. Miller and Ross, both members of the museum's board, believed the visit would be seen as a symbolic act of reconciliation and could help ease tensions in the peace talks.

Believing they had the blessings of Lerman, they convinced Arafat to make the visit.

But late last week, the Palestinian leader abandoned his plans after Lerman said that Arafat, while free to visit the museum as a private individual, would not be afforded the welcome of a head of state or VIP.

Lerman said at the time he was concerned about polarizing the Jewish community -- since some vocal Zionist groups opposed the Arafat visit, although many Jewish groups favored it -- and was worried the visit would politicize the museum, a federal institution.

Lerman's unilateral decision angered much of the board, as well as Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, who, in a Sunday television appearance, chided the museum for its treatment of Arafat, saying "it would have been appropriate to have him treated as a VIP."

"People are very supportive of the peace process and recognize that Chairman Arafat is the person we have to deal with," said Lynn Lyss, a board member from St. Louis who applauded yesterday's turnabout. "A deliberate snub is not in anyone's interest."

A State Department spokesman, James Rubin, said Albright routinely has encouraged foreign leaders to tour the museum. "But in this case, it's particularly important for Chairman Arafat to understand one of the defining events in Jewish history that clearly affects the views of the Israeli people and Jews around the world," Rubin said. But now that the visit has become a focal point of Arafat's trip, some Jewish and Arab leaders are upset at the way the episode is unfolding.

Foxman, among those who agree that Arafat should be given a VIP reception, is nevertheless critical of the State Department's role in initiating the visit.

"As a Holocaust survivor, it's offensive to have the museum used as a prop in the peace process," he said.

Arab officials welcomed the original overture from the State Department, but were angered that the invitation sparked such controversy.

"Arafat and the Palestinian community -- we wanted to make a gesture," said Hasan Abed Rahman, the Palestinian representative in Washington. "We wanted to look forward and not look back. Yet, this was rejected. The damage is done, I believe."

Pub Date: 1/21/98

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