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It is perhaps no coincidence that the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, keeps on her desk a framed portrait of Catherine the Great, who left behind the small east German principality of Anhalt-Zerbst to rule and enlarge the vast Tsarist empire. Mrs Merkel too came out of the old East Germany to lead her unified country and German politics is strewn with the corpses of those who have underestimated her. 

By and large, however, she has been cautious on the international stage, preferring quiet diplomacy to grand gestures. This may be about to change, as she turns to face the challenges in the Middle East. For many years, German politicians have made ritualised reference to the special relationship between them, as the descendants of the perpetrators of the Holocaust, and Israel, where many of the descendants of the victims live along with a dwindling band of survivors.

Chancellor Merkel's engagement with Israel has been on an entirely different level. In January, she hosted a joint meeting of the German and Israeli cabinets in Berlin, the second such meeting in as many years, the first in Germany and a far cry from the danger of arrest that Israeli politicians and generals face if they set foot in Britain. 

Time and again, she has reiterated not only her belief in Germany's special responsibility for Israel's security, but also the importance of the common "democratic and pluralistic" values which link the two countries.  Moreover, she was unusually strong in her condemnation of Hamas rocket attacks on southern Israel — which she denounced as the "clear and sole" threat to security in that area — and was one of the few Western leaders publicly to defend the retaliatory attack into Gaza. She is also the first German head of government to address a joint session of the Israeli parliament.

Yet until the age of 35, in the autumn of 1989, Angela Merkel had never stood for election, given an interview or eliminated a rival. A physical chemist, she became politically active in the Christian opposition movement, Demokratischer Aufbruch, during the twilight of the GDR regime, rising from data management to press spokeswoman. After German unification, she joined the CDU, and under Chancellor Helmut Kohl's patronage rose quickly within the party. He was comfortable with "the girl", as she was known to him and the male establishment throughout the 1990s. She appeared to pose no threat and ticked various useful boxes: female, Protestant, eastern and reliable. But in December 1999, when Kohl's illegal secret party bank accounts were exposed, Merkel was the first to put the boot in, calling for his resignation. Not long after, she became party leader.

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