By MATTI FRIEDMAN
2009-08-27 01:10 PM
Netanyahu's talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel came a day after a rare sign of progress in bringing Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table, with both Israeli and Palestinian officials indicating that a first meeting between their leaders was likely to take place within several weeks.
A meeting between Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, which the officials said could happen at the U.N. General Assembly in New York, would be an important symbolic step toward resuming peace talks and a signal achievement for President Barack Obama.
The international community has been pressing Israel to freeze construction in its West Bank settlements, built on land the Palestinians want for a future state. Israel has resisted the demand, opening a gap between itself and its close ally in Washington, but in the past week both sides have indicated that a compromise was close.
The subject of settlements was sure to be raised at Netanyahu's meeting with Merkel on Thursday. Speaking Wednesday, German government spokesman Klaus Vater said that Berlin advocates that "no further settlements be built in the occupied areas."
Netanyahu's discussions with Merkel will also touch on Iran's nuclear program, which Israel sees as an existential threat and wants blocked by stronger international sanctions.
But 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 scheduled to visit the Wannsee House, site of a key meeting at which the Nazis planned the extermination of the Jews. And he was to visit the headquarters of a Berlin publisher to see the recently discovered blueprints for Auschwitz, the Nazis' infamous death camp in Poland.
Netanyahu is accompanied on his trip by Yossi Peled, an Israeli Cabinet minister who was hidden in Belgium by Christian parents after his parents were killed by the Nazis. Peled discovered he was Jewish at age 7, in 1948 _ the year Israel was founded _ and later moved there, eventually becoming a general in the armed forces.
Germany and Israel eventually overcame their fraught relationship to forge close ties, with West Germany paying reparations in the 1950s that helped Israel's early leaders build their country's infrastructure and military.
Netanyahu arrived in Berlin from London, where he met British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and U.S. Mideast envoy George Mitchell.
His meeting with Mitchell appeared to have been inconclusive, with a joint statement afterward saying only that "good progress" was made.
"There were discussions that moved us ahead in the process, but there are still issues that haven't been agreed upon," Netanyahu told reporters afterward.
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.
It is unclear what sort of compromise would be acceptable to the Americans or to the Palestinians, who have said they will not resume talks before Israel freezes construction in its settlements.
Abbas reiterated that position in a speech Wednesday. But the Israelis have been strongly hinting that Netanyahu could meet Abbas next month at the U.N. General Assembly in New York, and on Wednesday, Palestinian officials in the West Bank said for the first time that such a meeting was likely.
The officials said that while Abbas is prepared to talk to Netanyahu, he would not officially reopen negotiations until Israel halts its settlement activities. They spoke on condition of anonymity because nothing has been formally scheduled.
The Palestinians and the international community consider settlements to be obstacles to peace. Some 300,000 Israelis now live in West Bank settlements, in addition to 180,000 Israelis living in Jewish neighborhoods in east Jerusalem. The Palestinians claim both areas, captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, as parts of a future independent state.
A poll released Wednesday in Israel showed freezing settlements would be an unpopular move. Almost two-thirds of those questioned told pollsters they opposed a freeze, even in return for moves by Arab countries toward normalization of ties with Israel. Thirty-nine percent said they would support a freeze in return for Arab gestures.
Conducted by the Maagar Mohot polling company, the survey questioned 506 Jewish Israelis and had a margin of error of 4.5 percentage points.
Associated Press writer Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank contributed to this story.