Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu provoked a Holocaust controversy, hours before a visit to Germany, by saying that the Muslim elder in Jerusalem during the 1940s convinced Adolf Hitler to exterminate the Jews.

In a speech to the Zionist Congress late yesterday, Mr Netanyahu referred to a series of Muslim attacks on Jews in Palestine during the 1920s that he said were instigated by the then-Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini.

Mr Husseini famously flew to visit Hitler in Berlin in 1941 and Mr Netanyahu said that meeting was instrumental in the Nazi leader's decision to launch a campaign to annihilate the Jews.

"Hitler didn't want to exterminate the Jews at the time, he wanted to expel the Jews," Mr Netanyahu said in the speech.

"And Haj Amin al-Husseini went to Hitler and said, 'If you expel them, they'll all come here [Palestine]’.

"So what should I do with them?" Mr Netanyahu said Hitler asked the mufti, who responded: "Burn them."

Mr Netanyahu, whose father was an eminent historian, was quickly harangued by opposition politicians and experts on the Holocaust who said he was distorting the historical record.

Critics noted the meeting between Mr Husseini and Hitler took place on 28 November, 1941.

More than two years earlier, in January 1939, Hitler had addressed the Reichstag, Nazi Germany's parliament, and spoke clearly about his determination to exterminate the "Jewish race".

"The idea to rid the world of the Jews was a central theme in Hitler's ideology a long, long time before he met the mufti," Dina Porat, a professor at Tel Aviv University and the chief historian of Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust memorial museum said.

'Racial fanaticism of the Nazis' was responsible for Holocaust 

Germany today stressed its inherent responsibility in the Holocaust.

Asked to comment on Mr Netanyahu's allegation, government spokesman Steffen Seibert said he would not speak directly on the claim.

But he added: "I can speak for the federal government, that we Germans recognise that the murderous racial fanaticism of the Nazis was the historical origin.

"I see no reason to change our view of history in any way. We know of the inherent German responsibility in these crimes against humanity," he added, just hours before Mr Netanyahu was to meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin.

Mr Netanyahu later backtracked on his claim, denying that he was exonerating Hitler of the responsibility for the Holocaust, in which six million Jews were slaughtered.