(photo credit: AP)
Palestinian Authority officials on Monday expressed deep disappointment after learning that US President George W. Bush, who is expected to visit Ramallah soon, does not intend to lay a wreath at Yasser Arafat's tomb.
Bush, who is also expected to visit Jericho and Bethlehem, does not even plan to pass near the tomb.
On the eve of Bush's visit, the PA announced that its security forces in the West Bank had thwarted a suicide bombing in Israel.
PA Information Minister Riad al-Malki said a Hamas would-be suicide bomber was arrested shortly before he was due to set out on his mission. The PA security forces also seized a videotape featuring the would-be bomber that was supposed to have been released after the attack, he said.
Malki reiterated claims that last Friday's shooting attack in the Hebron Hills, in which two Israelis were killed, was "criminally motivated." He said the PA security forces had arrested the perpetrators and seized the rifles they took from their victims, two off-duty soldiers.
"A group of young men carried out the attack in order to take the weapons of the two settlers," Malki said. "Our forces pursued them, arrested them and returned the weapons to the Israelis."
Bush would not stop by Arafat's newly-built mausoleum during his visit to Ramallah, a source in the US Consulate in Jerusalem told The Jerusalem Post. The PA has invested millions of dollars in building the mausoleum in the Mukata "presidential" compound.
"I'm not aware of any plan to lay a wreath at Arafat's tomb," the source said. "This issue was not raised during preparations for President Bush's tour and I doubt if he would do so."
To avoid embarrassing the Palestinians, Bush may meet with PA President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem or at the Prime Minister's Office in Ramallah.
In response, a senior PA official said, "Of course we are very disappointed, although we weren't surprised."
The official said the PA leadership had decided not to make a big issue out of the visit to Arafat's mausoleum to avoid creating a crisis with the US.
Almost all foreign leaders who visit the Mukata stop by Arafat's tomb to pay respects or lay a wreath on it.
Abbas has decided to dispatch two of his aides to Washington for talks with US officials ahead of Bush's Middle East tour, which is scheduled to begin January 9.
The two emissaries, Yasser Abed Rabbo and Akram Haniyeh, will try to persuade the Bush administration to exert pressure on Israel to halt construction in West Bank settlements and east Jerusalem neighborhoods, including Har Homa, PA officials said.
The PA wants Bush to publicly call for a halt of the construction work during his speeches in Israel and the West Bank, they added.
"In order for the visit to succeed, President Bush must call on Israel to stop building in all the settlements, including ones that Israel defines as neighborhoods inside the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem," a PA official told the Post. "The settlements are a major obstacle to peace."
Also Monday, Abbas took a relatively conciliatory tone toward Hamas, calling for talks to resolve the differences between the Islamic group and Fatah.
In a speech marking the 43rd anniversary of the founding of the Fatah movement, Abbas again rejected the Hamas takeover of Gaza but called for "dialogue, dialogue, dialogue." Up until now, Abbas has said Hamas must relinquish control of Gaza before talks with Fatah can begin.
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum rejected Abbas' speech.
"It is full of incitement and words calling for divisions," he said. "There is no new initiative or practical step in this speech that can pave the road to start an immediate dialogue."
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