Less than a week before the important visit that the US president will make to Israel, Palestine and Jordan, there are some mysteries as to the Palestinian leg of his visit. While the most repeated itinerary lists Ramallah as a city where the US president will be spending a few hours, some sources are giving a different story. More than one Palestinian news site has claimed that President Barack Obama will visit Bethlehem rather than the temporary Palestinian capital of Ramallah.
One of the reasons given for why the American president might want to skip Ramallah is the fact that if he visits the secured and natural offices of the Palestinian president he will have a political difficulty. Pundits (mostly western) are claiming that if Obama passes by the grave of Yasser Arafat which is centrally located within the Muqata’a presidential compound that the American leader will have a difficult choice. Not laying a wreath will be seen as an insult to Palestinians while doing so would be seen in negative terms by some Israelis.
This is precisely the political correctness that has made a mockery of the so called claims that the US is an honest broker when it comes to the Middle East conflict.
A president that will be spending two days in Israel and reportedly a few hours in Palestine is certainly not presenting a picture of neutrality and even handedness when it comes to Israelis and Palestinians. And when Obama will visit the Israeli president and the Israeli prime minister and lay wreaths at the tomb of the founder of Zionism Herzel, the assassinated Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin as well as a wreath at Yad Vashem in memory of Jews killed during the Holocust.
There is no reason why Obama should not lay a wreath at the tomb of the modern day founder of the Palestinian national movement and a person who shares with the late Rabin, Peres and Obama himself a Nobel Peace prize.
Failure to pay respect to the Palestinian leader will be a slap in the face of Palestinian nationalism. It would be considered an indirect negation of Palestinians' desire for a national homeland within an independent state. Accepting the indirect Israeli (and American pro-Israel) pressures that will attempt to dissuade him from paying respect will send a terrible signal to Palestinians, Arabs and Moslems. It will reinforce a deeply imprinted perception that American officials — whether in their first or second term — act toward Palestinians within the borders that pro-Israel lobbyists have created. For such lobbyists, Arafat represents radicalism and terrorism and should not be honored.
If the same argument will be applied it would be hard to argue for an Obama visit to Rabin’s gravesite. Rabin was a hawkish defence minister whose iron-fist policies caused death and destruction to many innocent Palestinians and who publicly called for breaking the arms of Palestinians who threw stones at Israelis. Herzel represents the quintessential enemy of the Palestinian Arab peoples whose lands were usurped based on a false claim that Palestine was a land without people for a people without land.
The protocol of political leaders laying wreaths at the tombs of founding fathers of a host country is a typical act that should not be given more weight than it deserves. A visit by Obama to the graveside of Arafat would be a gesture that will reflect respect and honor not just to the man, but to the millions of Palestinians who hold his memory dear to them, and who credit him for unifying the Palestinian people after the Nakbeh ("catastrophe") of 1948 and the Naksa ("setback") of 1967.
Until this moment it has not been stated whether or not Obama will lay a wreath at Arafat’s grave and even the visit to Ramallah is in doubt by some media accounts with Obama’s visit to be restricted only to Bethlehem. But if Obama does visit the Muqata’a in Ramallah and fails to pay his respects to the late Palestinian president, he will be seen as having slapped the Palestinian people and Palestinian nationalism in the face. This will not help contribute an atmosphere that is enabling for some serious peace talks in which the US can truly play a decisive element as an honest broker.
Daoud Kuttab is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Palestine Pulse. A Palestinian journalist and media activist, he is a former Ferris Professor of journalism at Princeton University and is currently the director general of Community Media Network, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to advancing independent media in the Arab region. Active in media-freedom efforts in the Middle East, Kuttab is a columnist for The Jordan Times, The Jerusalem Post and The Daily Star in Lebanon, and has co-produced a number of award-winning documentaries and children’s television programs.
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