Holocaust museum reverses decision over Arafat visit

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The Independent Online
Yasser Arafat arrived in Washington yesterday for talks today with President Bill Clinton amid faint hope of a breakthrough for peace in the Middle East.

Attention focused instead on the Palestinian leader's controversial plans to visit the US Holocaust Museum. The museum initially refused to allow Mr Arafat publicly to express his regret at the suffering of the Jews under the Nazis but, under pressure from the White House and moderate Jewish groups, it reversed its decision on Tuesday. Security was being beefed up at the museum for tomorrow's visit, which has excited furious opposition from American supporters of Israel.

But Ruth Mandel, the museum's vice-chairman, said she and other senior museum officials would personally escort Mr Arafat around the building, whose most harrowing exhibit is a mountain of shoes of all shapes and sizes left behind by victims of the Nazi extermination camps. "He [Arafat] is involved in negotiations with a nation which has a large population for whom the Holocaust was a central life experience," Ms Mandel said. "The more he understands about the history of that people, perhaps the more he'll understand about how he should negotiate."

Mr Arafat has said he is "keen" to visit the museum. Khalil Foutah, a Palestinian official in Washington, said Mr Arafat wished to show that he sympathised with the horrors historically faced by the Jewish people. "We really regret what happened to the victims of the Holocaust," Mr Foutah said. "The idea is to send a message to the Jewish people that we care for humanity."

Whether Mr Arafat's goodwill gesture will soften the hearts of Israeli and Palestinian hardliners sufficiently to inject life into the dying peace effort in the Middle East remains to be seen.

Two rounds of talks on Tuesday between Mr Clinton and the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, yielded nothing of any substance, though Mr Netanyahu claimed that some progress had been made in the attempt to reconcile Palestinian demands for an Israeli troop withdrawal from the West Bank and Israeli demands for Palestinian security measures to protect Israel from terrorist attack.