Middle East

UAE, Israel ministers in 'historic' first meeting at Holocaust Memorial

BERLIN (AFP) – The foreign ministers of Israel and the United Arab Emirates on Tuesday (Oct 6) visited the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin during their historic first meeting, a major step forward for their new relations.

Israel’s Gabi Ashkenazi and UAE counterpart Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan bumped elbows in line with measures to halt the spread of the coronavirus.

It was their first face-to-face meeting since their countries set aside decades of enmity and signed a US-brokered deal in mid-September to normalise ties.

Accompanied by host German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, Ashkenazi said the visit was particularly moving for him “as a representative (of Israel), as a former general and as the son of a Holocaust survivor”.

“The three of us stood there silently together as we remembered the victims. And for the first time in history, a representative of an Arab state was present… Our presence together today symbolises a new era – of peace, stability, prosperity and hope.”

Bahrain and the UAE 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 the status quo where Arab countries have tried to maintain unity against Israel over its treatment of the stateless Palestinians.

The visit by the Emirati minister to the Holocaust Memorial is also 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.

‘NEVER AGAIN’

Together with Maas, the pair walked through the sombre monument, a vast undulating labyrinth of more than 2,700 grey 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.

Visibly relaxed, Ashkenazi and Sheikh Abdullah shared a few words as they visited the monument’s underground museum and signed the visitors’ book.

Sheikh Abdullah wrote “never again,” in his message, adding that the site “showcases the values of coexistence and forgiveness… that my country was built on”.

Ashkenazi looked forward in his message saying the meeting “symbolises 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’.”

‘FIRST GOOD NEWS’

Maas called it “a great honour 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.”

Following their talks at the German foreign ministry retreat, the UAE and Israeli ministers voiced readiness to open cooperation in fields including technological development and security.

Issues including the setting up of embassies or establishing of air links were brought up during the talks, said Ashkenazi.

Maas called the Israel-UAE agreement the “first good news in the Middle East for a long time”.

But he urged the parties to go further and for the region to seize the momentum to find lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

“This opportunity must be seized,” said Maas, whose country currently holds the presidency of the EU, voicing the readiness of the bloc to help.

Israel’s Ashkenazi called upon the Palestinians to come back to the negotiating table.

“The longer we put off negotiations the more we are leaving behind a more difficult reality for the next generations.”

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