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Netanyahu in Berlin: Iran, settlements, Auschwitz

With memories of the Holocaust as their backdrop, the leaders of Israel and Germany spoke Thursday about the need to keep the Jewish state safe from threats like a nuclear-armed Iran.
/ Source: The Associated Press

With memories of the Holocaust as their backdrop, the leaders of Israel and Germany spoke Thursday about the need to keep the Jewish state safe from threats like a nuclear-armed Iran.

Chancellor Angela Merkel also underlined her country's desire to see Israel stop building its controversial settlements, telling reporters after meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that "time on this is short."

Netanyahu's talks with Merkel in the German capital came a day after a rare sign of progress in bringing Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table, with both sides indicating a first meeting between their leaders was likely to take place within weeks.

A meeting between Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, which the officials said could happen in September at the U.N. General Assembly in New York, would be an important symbolic step toward resuming peace talks.

"I hope that in a time frame of a month or two we can relaunch negotiations," Netanyahu said Thursday. "Let's just get on with it."

But Netanyahu offered no indication that Israel would agree to a settlement freeze, the Palestinian condition for resuming the peace talks.

Some 300,000 Israelis now live in West Bank settlements, besides 180,000 Israelis living in Jewish neighborhoods in east Jerusalem. The Palestinians claim both areas.

The United States, a strong ally, has urged Israel to stop expanding the settlements.

Netanyahu arrived in Berlin from London, where he met British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and U.S. Mideast envoy George Mitchell. The Israeli leader's meeting with Mitchell, centering on efforts to achieve a settlement compromise, appeared to have been inconclusive, with a joint statement afterward saying only that "good progress" was made.

Netanyahu has said he wants a compromise that would allow Israel to continue with some settlement construction while at the same time restarting peace talks with the Palestinians. Israeli officials say one possibility being discussed would let Israel complete 2,500 housing units now under construction while promising not to build more.

Netanyahu has said he will accept no restrictions in east Jerusalem, which Israel captured in 1967 and which the Palestinians see as their future capital.

It is unclear what sort of compromise would be acceptable to American or Palestinian officials, who have said they will not resume talks before Israel freezes construction in its settlements.

Turning to Iran, Merkel and Netanyahu underlined the need for Tehran to stop its nuclear program or face stiffer sanctions.

Merkel noted after their meeting that the Group of Eight's position made it clear that a "definitive point" on the existing offer for Tehran to resume talks on the issue would be reached in September.

"If there is no answer, then we will have to talk about stronger measures and sanctions in the energy, financial and other important sectors," Merkel said.

Netanyahu said he and Merkel also discussed a prisoner swap for an Israeli soldier held by Hamas since 2006. Germany has not confirmed reports it is involved in negotiations, but Netanyahu hinted that Berlin has been playing a role.

"(Israel) appreciates all efforts of well meaning governments to help us in this regard, and Germany is definitely a well-meaning government," he said.

A visit by an Israeli leader to Germany is never limited to current events. Between meetings with Merkel and the German foreign minister, Netanyahu was also visiting the Wannsee House, the site of a key 1942 meeting during which the Nazis formalized plans for the extermination of the Jews.

Netanyahu also took possession of a set of blueprints of the notorious Auschwitz death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland. Accepting the blueprints from the editor of Bild, the German newspaper that obtained the plans after they surfaced in Berlin last year, Netanyahu drew a parallel between past and current events.

"We cannot allow those who wish to perpetrate mass deaths, those who call for the destruction of the Jewish people or the Jewish state, to go unchallenged," Netanyahu said.

"It is important for the leaders of other nations to realize that their own fate is imperiled by those who threaten our fate," he said.

Netanyahu didn't explicitly mention Iran, but it was a clear reference to that country's nuclear program, which Israel sees as a grave threat and wants blocked by stronger international sanctions.

The 29 sketches of the death camp built in Nazi-occupied Poland date as far back as 1941. They include detailed blueprints for living barracks, delousing facilities and crematoria, including gas chambers, and are considered important for understanding the genesis of the Nazi genocide.

The sketches are initialed by the head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, and Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Hoess.

Germany and Israel today enjoy close ties, and Merkel underlined Germany's special commitment to Israel's existence, saying it was her country's obligation to "defend Israel always."

Germany built the Israeli navy's three Dolphin-class submarines, which foreign press reports say can launch nuclear-tipped missiles. It is also building two more submarines and is in talks with Israel's military about supplying its fleet with several modern missile boats.