The president of Maldives arrived for an “official” visit to “Palestine” on Tuesday without planning a stopover in Israel, underlining the loss of one of Israel’s few friends in the Muslim world.
President Mohammed Waheed Hassan’s four-day visit includes trips to Bethlehem, Hebron and Ramallah, where he met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and laid a wreath at the grave of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat Tuesday. He is not scheduled to meet any Israeli officials.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Paul Hirschson said that Israel has been kept informed of the visit and coordinated with the Maldivians for security needs. “We’re perfectly happy for them to have an active relationship with the Palestinians,” he said.
The Republic of Maldives, a tiny island nation southwest of Sri Lanka, does not have diplomatic relations with Israel, yet until two years ago bilateral ties were growing increasingly cordial.
In February 2012, the government in Malé was deposed in what observers called a political coup. Mohamed Nasheed — the country’s first democratically elected president, known for his pro-Israel stance — was ousted and replaced by Islamist hardliners around Waheed Hassan.
Less than 10 months before that, in May 2011, the Maldives’ then-foreign minister, Ahmed Naseem, became the nation’s first top official to visit Israel. During his four-day stay he met with President Shimon Peres and then-foreign minister Avigdor Liberman, laid a wreath at Yad Vashem and visited other sites throughout the country. Nasheed’s government maintained “relations of appreciation and friendship with Israel,” the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem stated at the time.
In 1965, Israel was third state to recognize Maldives, and the Israeli ambassador was the first to present his credentials to the Maldives’ president, according to the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem. However, diplomatic relations were suspended in 1974. About 20 years ago, ties improved again; the two states have since signed three agreements in the fields of health, tourism and education. In 2010, Israeli ophthalmologists visited the country to perform eye operations; Islamists protested their arrival.
Located in the Indian Ocean, the archipelago republic of roughly 330,000 inhabitants, spread across hundreds of islands, does not allow the public practice of any religion other than Islam and does not grant non-Muslims citizenship.