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Israel to welcome the world for Auschwitz anniversary

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Jerusalem (AFP)

World leaders are to travel to Israel this week to mark 75 years since the Red Army liberated Auschwitz, the extermination camp where the Nazis killed over a million Jews.

It is set to be one of the most important events ever organised by the Jewish state, with more than 40 leaders planning to land in Tel Aviv before attending Thursday's sombre commemoration at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial centre in Jerusalem.

Thousands of police officers and other security forces will deploy from Tuesday, ahead of the arrival of dignitaries including Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Emmanuel Macron and US Vice President Mike Pence.

Alongside the commemoration, events will focus on tackling contemporary anti-Semitism.

But Middle East geopolitics will also be firmly on the agenda, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu due to hold numerous bilateral meetings with key leaders.

"I will talk with them about Iran, various developments in the region and the strengthening of relations between the countries," he said Sunday at the start of a cabinet meeting.

Netanyahu has already warned Israel would strike a "resounding blow" if attacked by arch foe Iran, after the US assassinated top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani early this month.

Beyond the soaring tensions between Tehran and Washington, the dignitaries will also get an insight into Israel's own political crisis.

Israelis head to the polls on March 2 for the third national election in less than a year, with Netanyahu and his centrist rival Benny Gantz neck-and-neck and neither set to win a majority.

To avoid showing favouritism to one candidate, Macron is due to meet both the Israeli premier and former army chief Gantz.

Macron will also meet his Israeli counterpart Reuven Rivlin, who on Wednesday evening will host around 40 foreign delegations at his Jerusalem residence.

Preparations for the dinner were already underway on Sunday, an AFP journalist said.

- Polish president cancels -

"It is the first time that so many leaders are coming here," said Harel Tubi, the director-general of the Israeli president's office.

He said more foreign dignitaries are due in Jerusalem this week than those who attended the funeral of former prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin, assassinated in 1995, and Shimon Peres who died in 2016.

Moshe Kantor, founder of the World Holocaust Forum which is behind Thursday's events, said he "never expected such a strong and positive" response from so many leaders.

The focal point of the Auschwitz commemorations will be a memorial where Putin, Macron, Britain's Prince Charles and German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier will deliver the main speeches along with Rivlin.

One key leader will however be absent from the event, which will honour those killed at the extermination camp in then Nazi-occupied Poland during World War II.

Polish President Andrzej Duda pulled out earlier this month over not being allowed to give a speech at the service.

Poland is in a bitter dispute with Russia, after Putin accused the country of having colluded with Nazi leader Adolf Hitler and of having acted in an anti-Semitic way at the dawn of the devastating conflict.

While in Jerusalem, the Russian president will also inaugurate a monument to honour victims of the Nazis' siege of Leningrad -- now Saint Petersburg -- which left more than 800,000 people dead between 1941 and 1944.

Netanyahu said he is hoping to "hear good news" from Putin on the high-profile case of Naama Issachar, an Israeli-American woman jailed in Russia on drug charges.

- 'Give peace a chance' -

During their stay Putin, Macron and Prince Charles will also visit the Palestinian city of Bethlehem and are due to hold separate meetings with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.

US support for Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank -- widely viewed as illegal by the international community -- is set to be high on the agenda.

The construction of settlements on Palestinian territory has intensified during the presidency of Donald Trump, a key Netanyahu ally.

The Israeli government said recently it wanted to more than double the number of settlers, to one million within a decade, while Netanyahu has vowed to annex a swathe of the West Bank.

Washington has touted its unpublished peace plan as a fresh approach to solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but it has already been boycotted by the Palestinians who accuse the US of pro-Israel bias.

But when leaders gather Wednesday at the Israeli president's residence, they will see a rallying cry written on a huge banner unfurled by a neighbour of Rivlin.

"All we are saying is give peace a chance," it reads, quoting the late musician John Lennon.

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