BERLIN – Sitting in this city, where the echoes of the Holocaust are everywhere, Palestinian Authority envoy Salah Abdel Shafi told a group of Israeli journalists last week that in his mind “the Holocaust is the biggest crime in human history.”

“This was a human tragedy that hit humanity,” said Abdel Shafi, who has headed the PA mission in Germany for the past two years.

“Jews were a major victim, though not the only ones,” he said, mentioning the Nazi’s murder of homosexuals and gypsies as well. “I think we should look at it as a human tragedy.”

Abdel Shafi’s comments about the Holocaust are unusual for a PA official, especially in light of a doctoral thesis written by PA President Mahmoud Abbas at a Russian university in the 1980s in which he described the Holocaust as a “Zionist fantasy, the fantastic lie that six million Jews were killed.”

Abdel Shafi said that Abbas had since clarified to American Jewish organizations that he did not deny the Holocaust, but that the “discussion” in his thesis was rather about numbers.

“We don’t deny the Holocaust,” Abdel Shafi said.

Indeed, Abdel Shafi noted that he had visited the concentration camps at Sachsenhausen and Buchenwald, and that his colleague in Poland had visited Auschwitz.

“I advise my staff to visit concentration camps,” he said. “It is important to draw the right conclusions and view it as a human tragedy.”

Asked what he viewed as the “right conclusions,” Abdel Shafi said that “everything should be done to ensure that such a thing should not be repeated.”

But, he added, “nobody should have a monopoly on suffering. Every nation feels their suffering is the worst, but suffering cannot be quantified.”

Abdel Shafi said the problem with Israel was that it was a strong state “but still feels like a victim.” He drew parallels with post-9/11 US under George W. Bush, saying – in an apparent allusion to the decision to invade Iraq – “in the name of victimhood, you can do anything.”

Abdel Shafi said he was willing to attend Holocaust memorials in Berlin but had never been invited.

Regarding the diplomatic process, Abdel Shafi said a meeting between Vice Premier and Kadima head Shaul Mofaz and Abbas was in the offing although he did not give any date. He said contacts between Jerusalem and Ramallah had been taking place over the past few months, even in the absence of high-profile meetings.

The Gaza-born envoy was skeptical of any real diplomatic progress at the moment, however, saying this was unlikely with Americans going to the polls in November and the Europeans preoccupied with the debt crisis. What is happening now, he said, was merely an effort to maintain the status quo and keep the situation from spiraling into violence.

He said unilateral Palestinian steps in international organizations “are not behind us,” and that future moves would depend “on the outcome of the current contacts.”

He added that while the PA application for UN admission was still before the Security Council, it realized it did not currently have the necessary votes. The discussion taking place now inside the PA was whether to go the General Assembly, he said.

Asked if he thought a “third intifada” would erupt, Abdel Shafi said it “was difficult to say,” adding that for the Palestinians expansion of the settlements was an “existential” issue because the settlements took up space the Palestinians wanted for their state.

“We cannot rely on the status quo,” he said.

Turning to the question of Palestinian incitement, Abdel Shafi said the Palestinians had recommended the reconvening of the Oslo-era trilateral committee – the US, Israel and PA – to monitor the issue, but that Israel had refused. Concurrently, the PA was compiling a monthly digest of what it considered Israeli incitement, including statements by ministers claiming a Jewish right to all of Jerusalem.

In a related development, Volker Perthes, head of an influential Berlin-based think tank called the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, said in a meeting with the Israeli journalists that Israel should downplay the Holocaust when talking with Germany about bilateral relations because younger Germans feel much less of a sense of historical responsibility toward Israel.

The German public, he said, was much more critical of Israel than the governing elite, partly because of a “residual anti-Semitism” in the country.

“People and societies don’t like to be reminded of guilt or do certain things because their grandparents sinned,” he said.

Israel, he added, would be wise to stress common interests in the bilateral relationship and downplay the historical perspectives because “people don’t like to hear it.”

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