Sunday, November 29, 2009

Netanyahu to Germany for joint session with Merkel - serious upgrade of the relations to the highest level possible

AP, WaPo).Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin 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 militants 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.

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.

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.