Washington, 21 January 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A representative from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum says it has reversed an earlier decision not to invite Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to visit its exhibits when he arrives in Washington this week to meet with U.S. President Bill Clinton.
Shana Penn, a member of the museum's media relation's staff, told RFE/RL on Tuesday that museum leaders have "changed their minds" and extended an official invitation to Arafat, offering him a specially guided tour including honors usually granted only to visiting dignitaries and heads of state.
The controversy over whether or not to officially invite Arafat to the Holocaust Museum began last week when U.S. State Department officials approached museum officials about inviting the Palestinian leader to view the exhibits as part of his Washington visit.
Arafat will be in Washington on Thursday as part of a U.S. attempt to rekindle the stalled Middle East peace process. Clinton already met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday.
The U.S. Holocaust Museum, which opened in 1993, contains a large collection of research material on the Holocaust, including graphic displays of photographs and artifacts on the Nazi genocide of six million Jews and others.
The museum is funded primarily by the U.S. government and all museum staff are considered government employees.
According to various news reports, the idea of a museum visit was conceived by Aaron Miller, a deputy to Dennis Ross, the State Department's Middle East coordinator. Miller and Ross, who both sit on the museum's board of directors, thought the visit might help ease the strained atmosphere of the peace talks and allow Arafat to acknowledge Jewish suffering.
Arafat had reportedly been persuaded to visit the museum and had already set time aside on his schedule in Washington.
But Miles Lerman, chairman of the Holocaust Memorial Council, and Walter Reich, director of the museum, decided against issuing Arafat a formal invitation.
The American newspaper the Washington Post broke the story Saturday, quoting Lerman as saying that the museum did not want to become a part of a political dispute by issuing Arafat an official invitation.
Lerman added that Arafat was "more than welcome" to visit the museum as a private individual, but not as the leader of the Palestinian people.
"The doors are open from ten in the morning to five-thirty in the afternoon," Lerman is quoted as saying.
But Lerman's and Reich's decision apparently upset other members of the museum board and officials in the U.S. government.
U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, said during a television interview Sunday that it was "too bad" Arafat had not been extended the courtesy of a special tour of the museum granted to important dignitaries, adding it would have been "appropriate."
James Rubin, the State Department's spokesmen, told reporters Sunday that the department strongly supported a visit by Arafat to the museum. He said: "We think it is particularly important for Chairman Arafat to visit a place which demonstrates the horrors of the Holocaust."
Ruth Mandel, vice chairman of the museum board, told the Washington Post that she had not been consulted and was "angry" about the decision. By Monday, Reich appeared to soften the museum's stance saying Arafat would be granted a special tour, but still would not be received as a head of state -- an honor that involves the laying of a wreath in the Hall of Remembrance, a place where an eternal flame memorializes Holocaust victims.
But according to various news agencies, U.S. officials continued to press museum authorities to issue Arafat an official invitation.
Even President Clinton expressed a desire for Arafat to visit the museum.
White House spokesman Michael McCurry said Tuesday: "I think the president feels that it is such an emotionally powerful place and lends such understanding to what is the common experience of the Jewish people that it would be wonderful if the Chairman had that opportunity."
By Tuesday afternoon, the U.S. Holocaust Museum had completely reversed its decision and issued an official invitation to Arafat.
Museum officials told RFE/RL that the invitation was on the same level as those issued to all visiting dignitaries.
When asked whether this meant Arafat would be able to lay a wreath in the Hall of Remembrance if he so desired, the answer was yes.
Netanyahu, upon being told of the museum's invitation, said he had no comment on the decision, saying he had not been consulted as to whether or not to invite Arafat. He did add, however, that if a visit were to take place, he hoped it would result in the changing of an "unfortunate habit" by the Palestinian press of "denying the Holocaust" and "referring to Israel as a Nazi-state."
Arafat was in Paris when he heard the news that a new invitation had been issued. He told reporters that he was "keen" to visit the museum, now that he had been issued a formal invitation. He said he would "study" the invitation carefully before making his decision.
But opponents of an Arafat visit to the museum say they are worried that the publicity generated by the controversy has been used to overshadow the visit of Netanyahu.
Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center told RFE/RL that the U.S. went beyond its role as an "honest broker" in the peace process by suggesting the museum visit. Hier said he thinks U.S. officials were looking for a way to improve Arafat's image at Netanyahu's expense.
But Hier says he is not against Arafat and his aides visiting the museum.
Adds Hier: "If they come to the Holocaust Museum and we say they are not permitted to enter, then people will say, who are we trying to educate? Do we only want to preach to the choir? Do we only want to invite Mr. and Mrs. Goldstein to learn about what happened in the Nazi Holocaust? I would think that is counter-productive."