The foreign ministers of Israel and the United Arab Emirates visited the Holocaust Memorial in central Berlin during their “historic” first meeting in the German capital on Tuesday.
Israel’s Gabi Ashkenazi and his UAE counterpart Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan bumped elbows instead of shaking hands in line with measures to halt the spread of the coronavirus, as they met face-to-face for the first time after their countries signed a US-brokered deal in mid-September to normalize relations.
It was the UAE foreign minister’s idea to visit the site alongside his Israeli counterpart, the Walla news site reported.
In a handwritten message in the visitor’s book at the memorial, the Emirati top diplomat commemorated the “European Jewish victims of the Holocaust.”
“A whole group of humanity fell victim to those calling for extremism and hatred,” he wrote, adding that the visit to the memorial “underscored the importance of human values such as coexistence, tolerance and accepting the other… as well as respect for all creeds and faiths. These are the values upon which my country was founded.”
“I salute the souls of those who fell victim to the Holocaust,” Al Nahyan wrote, before quoting from a Jewish prayer translated into Arabic: “May their souls be bound up in the binds of life.”
“Never again,” he wrote, in both English and in Arabic.
Ashkenazi looked forward in his message saying the meeting “symbolizes the beginning of a new era. An era of peace between peoples. Our joint signature in the book of remembrance is like a shared cry and oath: to remember and not to forget, to be strong and to promise ‘never again.'”
During the tour, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told Al Nahyan that Ashkenazi was the child of Holocaust survivors, Israel’s Foreign Ministry said.
“The Emirati minister was surprised to hear this and asked to hear more,” the ministry said. “Minister Ashkenazi told him of his roots and his father who survived a labor camp in Bulgaria in 1944 and about his immigration to Israel,” it added.
Accompanied by Maas, the pair walked through the somber monument, a vast undulating labyrinth of more than 2,700 gray concrete blocks spread over an area equivalent to three football fields.
It commemorates the slaughter of six million Jews by Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime.
Speaking at a press conference with the Israeli and Emirati foreign ministers later in the day, Maas said their willingness to meet in Berlin and tour the Holocaust memorial together “shows how serious you are in your efforts for good bilateral relations.”
“This shows that peaceful coexistence in the Middle East is possible,” he said.
Al Nahyan in his remarks said the Emirates, Israel and Germany are all striving for more stability in the region. “There is new hope for Palestinians and Israelis so they can work for a two-state solution and a better region,” he said.
Speaking at the press conference, Ashkenazi described the meeting with his Emirati counterpart as “good.” He said tourism and trade were discussed, while expressing hope for more talks, including on security.
“Everyone understands why we need to be strong to avoid war and create peace,” he said.
Ashkenazi said the UAE deal has paved the way for more relations between Israel and other Gulf countries, but said those states need to be “courageous” to move ahead. He also called for the Palestinians to come back to the negotiating table, saying that direct talks with Israel are the only way to move forward. He ended his speech by wishing for peace in Arabic.
— Barak Ravid (@BarakRavid) October 6, 2020
The visit by Al Nahyan to the Holocaust Memorial is a highly symbolic step, marking the shift in attitudes in the Arab world towards Israel and Jews.
Political conflicts have led to fierce tensions between Islam and Judaism and Holocaust denial is rampant in many Arab countries.
Maas called it “a great honor that the Israeli and Emirati foreign ministers picked Berlin as the site for their historic first meeting.
“The most important currency in diplomacy is trust and I am personally thankful to both my colleagues that they are placing this trust in Germany.”
In September, the UAE and Bahrain became the first Arab nations to establish relations with Israel since Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994. For the Mideast, the deals dubbed the Abraham Accords mark a distinct shift in a decades-old status quo where Arab countries have tried to maintain unity against Israel over its treatment of the stateless Palestinians.
Maas called the agreement between Israel and the UAE “the first good news in the Middle East for a long time — and a chance for new movement in the dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians.”