RAMALLAH, West Bank — Yasser Arafat, the late Palestinian leader, literally loomed large Thursday in Ramallah as President Bush became the first American president to visit the Muqata, the battered compound that serves as the Palestinian Authority president's home.
For the day's news conference, Palestinian officials placed a large portrait of Arafat over the podium where Bush stood, providing an ironic juxtaposition between the leaders.
It was Bush, after all, who'd played a decisive role in ending Arafat's political career and forcing the Palestinian Authority president to live out the last years of his life under Israeli siege in the ruins of the presidential compound.
In 2002, at the height of the deadly Palestinian uprising, Bush delivered a White House Rose Garden speech in which he urged Palestinians to turn their backs on Arafat. "Peace requires a new and different Palestinian leadership so that a Palestinian state can be born," Bush said at the time. "I call on the Palestinian people to elect new leaders, leaders not compromised by terror."
Arafat never recovered from the snub, which provided Israel with crucial support for marginalizing the iconic Palestinian leader. Israel kept the Muqata under regular siege and refused to let Arafat leave until he was near death in 2004, when he was allowed to seek medical treatment in Paris, where he later died.
Today, Arafat's body is buried in a sleek, $1.75 million mausoleum in the Muqata. World leaders from around the world come to lay wreaths and pay their respects.
But not Bush.
Even though he met just a short distance from the mausoleum with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, the pro-Western leader who was elected to succeed Arafat in 2005, there was never any question whether Bush would go near the tomb.
After the meetings, he hailed Abbas as a pro-Western reformer.
Then, three years after a helicopter had carried Arafat away from the Muqata for medical treatment before he died, Bush boarded a Marine helicopter that was waiting to depart from the same stretch of concrete that Arafat's had used. Bush's chopper lifted off above Arafat's tomb and arced south, toward Jerusalem.
McClatchy Newspapers 2008