Israeli PM to talk peace in Berlin

BERLIN: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was set to discuss peace efforts with German leaders on Thursday and make an emotional visit to the place where Nazi leaders plotted the "final solution".

The hawkish Israeli leader was to meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel for talks focused on the latest US-backed drive to revive the Middle East peace talks as well as attempts to halt Iran's disputed nuclear programme.

He will also meet Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Merkel's challenger in September 27 elections in Germany, on the second and final leg of a four-day European tour -- his first since taking office.

After meeting Merkel, Netanyahu will visit a villa on the Wannsee lake on the outskirts of Berlin where senior Nazis adopted in January 1942 the "final solution" -- the mass extermination of all Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe.

Netanyahu, who has described the upcoming visit to Wannsee as "emotional," will be the first Israeli prime minister to visit the site's museum which was opened in 1992 on the 50th anniversary of the "final solution" conference.

He lauded the Jewish state's close ties with Germany, which were officially established in 1965 following a fraught debate inside an Israel which had been deeply scarred by the Holocaust.

Germany now is considered Israel's strongest ally in Europe.

"Every time I am in Germany I bless the relationship we have with the German government. Not only because of the present and the future, but also because of the past," he told reporters shortly after arriving.

Before his meeting with Merkel, Netanyahu will be given original blueprints of the Auschwitz death camp at the Berlin headquarters of publishing house Axel Springer.

He is to pass on the 29 documents -- which were found in a Berlin apartment in 2008 and then bought by the Bild newspaper, owned by Axel Springer -- to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.

The blueprints, which date from 1941-42 and include plans drawn with cool technical precision of a gas chamber and a crematorium, were put on display by Axel Springer earlier this year.

More than one million Jews, Roma and others deemed "subhuman" by Adolf Hitler's regime were killed at Auschwitz, near the Polish city of Krakow, out of a total six million slaughtered up to the end of World War II in 1945.

Netanyahu came to Berlin from London where he met British counterpart Gordon Brown and US Middle East envoy George Mitchell, who has been pressing him to freeze Jewish settlement construction in the occupied West Bank in order to jumpstart peace talks.

Although Netanyahu appeared loath to the request, he expressed optimism that a deal could be clinched in the coming weeks, with direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks launched by the end of September.

The settlements were set to figure in talks with Merkel, as well as Israeli calls for tougher economic sanctions against Iran and reported German mediation in efforts to free Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit from Palestinian militants.