Netanyahu to Germany for joint session with Merkel

Netanyahu to Germany for

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu heads to Berlin Monday for a special joint session of the German and Israeli governments, a symbolic visit highlighting the two nations' bond six decades after the Holocaust. It is the first time an Israeli government will convene in Berlin, the former headquarters of the Nazi regime. The visit is more than ceremonial: High on the agenda will be Germany's latest push to win the release of a captive Israeli soldier held by Hamas terrorists in the Gaza Strip. There have been growing signs in the past week that the sides are close to a deal to exchange hundreds of Palestinian prisoners for the soldier. Netanyahu said Sunday that the visit would focus on Mideast security and diplomacy. "Germany is a loyal partner in the great efforts to promote peace and strengthen security," he told his Cabinet. Six million Jews perished in the Nazi Holocaust, and Israel was established three years after the end of World War II. About 250,000 elderly Holocaust survivors live in Israel, and some Israelis still refuse to buy German-made goods or visit Germany. But since the two countries established diplomatic ties in 1965, Germany has become perhaps Israel's strongest ally in Europe. Germany is Israel's second-largest trade partner - after the U.S. - and the Germans have played a leading role in international efforts to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions. It also has paid $39.4 billion to Holocaust survivors in Israel. Monday's session follows a historic visit last year by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Cabinet to mark the 60th anniversary of Israel's independence. She addressed the Israeli parliament and expressed shame over the Holocaust. At the end of Merkel's 20-minute speech, delivered in German, legislators gave her a standing ovation. Merkel's spokesman, Ulrich Wilhelm, said the top themes Monday would include environmental issues, economic cooperation and "progress of the Middle East peace process." He said the international effort to halt Iran's suspect nuclear program would also come up. Though not on the official agenda, the German-mediated efforts to arrange a prisoner swap between Israel and Hamas will certainly be discussed. Hamas is seeking hundreds of prisoners in exchange for Sgt. Gilad Schalit, who was captured by Gaza militants in a cross-border attack in June 2006. Israel has balked at past Hamas demands that militants involved in deadly suicide bombings be included in the deal. But German mediators who got involved in the talks in recent months appear to have bridged the gaps. Last week, both Israeli and Hamas officials expressed optimism that a deal was imminent. Wilhelm would say only that Germany is "ready to give help and support wherever it is possible and wanted." Netanyahu's entourage will include seven Cabinet ministers - including his defense and foreign ministers - who will meet separately with their German counterparts. "This is a serious upgrade of the relations to the highest level possible," said Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, one of the participants on the trip. In an emotional visit to Germany in August, Netanyahu received the blueprints to the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz. A month later, he waved the yellowing sketches at the United Nations in a passionate critique of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's questioning of the Holocaust. Monday's visit also coincides with the opening in Munich of the trial of accused Nazi criminal John Demjanjuk. In the 1980s, Demjanjuk stood trial in Israel accused of being the notoriously brutal guard "Ivan the Terrible." He was convicted, sentenced to death, then freed when an Israeli court ruled he was a victim of mistaken identity. The 89-year-old, who was deported from the U.S. to Germany earlier this year, now stands accused of being a low-ranking guard at the Sobibor death camp.