Bush Shuns Arafat in Death, As In Life
By Michael Abramowitz
RAMALLAH, Jan 10--In life, Yasser Afarat infuriated President Bush. In death, his presence seemed to loom over Bush's visit this morning to the Muqata, the compound that houses the offices of senior Palestinian officials and where Arafat spent the final three years of his life under virtual house arrest.
Arafat, who died in 2004, is buried on the compound. A giant photograph of the Palestinian guerilla-turned-president of the Palestinian National Authority hung on the wall, just over Bush's right shoulder, during his news conference with Arafat's successor, Mahmoud Abbas. It was a curious juxtaposition for a president who systematically shunned Arafat after concluding he could not be trusted and who once described him as a "loser" to Jordan's King Abdullah II.
As my colleague Glenn Kessler has reported, Bush told Abdullah: "If people don't fight terrorism, I am not going to deal with them."
Bush is the first American president to call for a Palestinian state, Arafat's lifelong ambition. But his refusal to deal with Arafat provoked huge controversy in its time and was in part responsible for the criticism--rejected by the White House--that Bush was not engaged in the Middle East peace process for much of his presidency. At the same time, it is a decision for which Bush and his advisers clearly have no regrets.
In a recent speech about the Middle East, National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley cited Bush's refusal to deal with Arafat as part of what he sees as a Bush effort to reposition the region for a possible peace deal. "The world was shocked by this decision," Hadley noted. "But the President saw Arafat as a failed leader who was complicit in terror and who did not deliver for his people. The President called for a new Palestinian leadership -- one that put the interests of the Palestinian people first and understood that violence and terror compromised those interests."
In fact, Palestinians elected Arafat's longtime political nemesis, Hamas, to a parliamentary majority in January 2006. The vote gave the armed Islamic movement -- classified as a terrorist organization by the Bush administration and Israel --day-to-day control of the Palestinian Authority until last summer, when Hamas seized the Gaza Strip by force. Abbas then dissolved the Hamas-run government and declared an emergency administration, which continues to govern the West Bank and hosted Bush's visit today.
Unlike many official visitors to the Muqata, Bush was not planning to pay his respects at Arafat's grave. A White House spokesman said he was not asked to do so, nor did he volunteer--a decision that appears to have been noted by many Palestinians who still regard Arafat as a hero and the father of their movement for their own state.
AFP this morning quoted Rasha Qawas, 36, who lives near the Muqata, as saying: "The Americans are proud of their history and their symbols. By ignoring the mausoleum set up as our monument to historic leader Yasser Arafat, Bush is showing contempt for all our sacrifices."
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