Arafat Holocaust museum visit remains unclear for the future

WASHINGTON — Perhaps owing to Monica Lewinsky, the limitations of a tight schedule, the aftertaste of being snubbed — or a combination of the three — Yasser Arafat's much-ballyhooed visit to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum awaits another day.

The Palestinian Authority chairman said he could not find time in his schedule to tour the museum during his visit to Washington last week, but promised to take up the offer during another trip.

Some of Arafat's aides also reportedly said the visit would best be delayed in light of the controversy swirling around President Clinton and former White House intern Lewinsky, less its impact be completely overshadowed.

Still, Arafat left the museum staff hanging for most of the day on Friday of last week, unsure whether he would decide to show up at the last minute before leaving town.

Whether Arafat will ever tour the museum remains uncertain, given some of the criticism that has surfaced among Palestinians.

The idea of a visit was suggested by the U.S. Middle East peace process team. Dennis Ross, the State Department's special Middle East coordinator, and his deputy, Aaron Miller — both of whom sit on the museum's council — saw it as an opportunity for Arafat to become the first major Arab leader to visit the national memorial. Their hope was that it would help him to better understand the history and fears of his adversary.

After extending an invitation to Arafat, then retracting it in the face of complaints, Miles Lerman, chairman of the museum's council, personally delivered the invitation to Arafat in the end.

For some council members, the controversy stemming from the on-again, off-again invitation has served as a reminder that the museum is a national — and not a Jewish — institution, and must be governed accordingly. While it was founded by American Jews, it remains a federally funded institution and therefore, they point out, it has an obligation to accommodate a State Department initiative.

The episode, meanwhile, has also offered some other important lessons for museum leaders about communication among their hierarchy.

Members of the council and its executive committee complained that they were not consulted about either of the decisions to extend or retract the invitation.

Lerman, for his part, blamed the controversy on "bad advice" from museum director Walter Reich, who argued that an invitation would be too divisive.

Other council members also protested that welcoming Arafat, a man who for years led a terrorism campaign against Israel, would help him in a public relations ploy that would offend Jews and serve to cheapen the Holocaust.

While council members have indicated they plan no action against Reich for his handling of the situation, some believe he will leave as a result. His contract is up this spring.

Reich has declined to talk to reporters.

Lerman, whose term is up in May, is also being tight-lipped in the wake of the controversy, saying only it is time "to turn the page and go back to work. We have a museum to run."