Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas bestowed official honors on the mother of three terrorists days ahead of President Barack Obama’s much-anticipated visit to the region Wednesday.
Abbas bequeathed the "medal of sacrifice" on Sunday to Mariam Farhat, a recently deceased Hamas lawmaker who encouraged three of her children to die while committing terrorist acts, according to Arab media reports.
Farhat was dubbed a "martyr of the nation and of duty" and a "condolences house" was erected at Abbas’ office in the West Bank, according to an independent translation of the reports.
Abbas’ recognition of terrorists has raised concerns about his commitment to the peace process on the eve of Obama’s trip to Israel and the West Bank where he will meet with the Palestinian leader and other high-ranking officials.
"This is an important issue," said David Pollock, a former Middle East adviser at the State Department. "This happens all the time and it’s not just the mothers or families but the terrorist themselves that Abbas personally congratulates and meets with or goes out of his way to memorialize."
Yet the Obama administration has been hesitant to raise the issue in a major way, said Pollock, who currently serves as the Kaufman fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
"The American side has tended to say only very fleeting [reprimands] and generally pays low level attention to the whole issue of incitement," Pollock said. "It's not a trivial or rhetorical issue. It gets to the who psychology of peacemaking."
Obama is expected to touch down in Tel Aviv on Wednesday for a series of meetings and public appearances with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The president will then travel on Thursday to the West Bank enclaves of Ramallah and Bethlehem where Abbas will likely accompany him.
Obama, during his session with Abbas, will "reaffirm our support for both Palestinian aspirations for a two state solution, but also the important institution building the Palestinian Authority is doing in the West Bank," according to Deputy White House National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes.
Rhodes said Obama will speak with "young Palestinians" about their efforts to establish a Palestinian state "in the West Bank and Gaza," where the terror group Hamas maintains control.
Obama will also visit the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem where stood, until recently, a large stone monument depicting the state of Palestine existing over all of Israel’s territory.
"That has been removed and replaced with a Dove," Pollock noted.
Obama reportedly will discuss Abbas’ future with Netanyahu in addition to the normal discussions about peace and security in the region.
"There is grave concern in both Jerusalem and Washington about what will happen when Abbas, 78, leaves the scene," the Jerusalem Post reported Tuesday.
"Neither Israel nor the U.S. has a plan or idea on how to influence who Abbas’s successor will be without leaving fingerprints. The concern is that if no new leader emerges, Hamas could take over following Abbas’s departure," the Israeli paper wrote.
Western experts agreed that a "huge succession crisis" is brewing in the West Bank and said that the issue should be at the top of Obama’s list of regional concerns.
"You’re basically one heart attack away from a complete cut off of American aid and internal chaos" in the Palestinian territories, said Jonathan Schanzer, vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Palestinian law dictates that if Abbas dies the speaker of the Palestinian parliament is to fill his role. The current speaker, however, is Aziz Dweik, a Hamas member who has served time in Israeli prison.
If a Hamas official were to assume control of the Palestinian Authority, the United States and many Western nations would be forced to cut off funding to the embattled government. The Palestine Liberation Organization would also likely refuse to accept an interim Hamas president.
"Something needs to be done," Schanzer said, noting that the issue is sensitive given Abbas' reluctance to open a political space in the West Bank. "The question is, will Obama talk to Abbas about his potential replacement or a system that would allow for new leadership to emerge?"
Other observers have billed the trip as a vanity exercise for Obama, who is not expected to present any major policy plans regarding the peace process.
"Washington insiders called his visit and the interview he gave Channel 2 a ‘charm offensive’ to improve his image in Israel," the Jerusalem Post reported Tuesday.
White House official Rhodes described the trip as an opportunity to "speak directly to the Israeli people," large percentages of whom have not always seen eye-to-eye with Obama.
Eighty percent of Israelis doubt that Obama will reinvigorate the peace process, according to a recent poll.