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BERLIN - "For us, relations with Israel are a precious treasure that we must preserve. We and the coming generations must therefore be aware of our history and the responsibility it entails. We must take a clear and public stand about maintaining close relations with the Jewish community in Germany and of course, close relations with Israel, especially on the level of personal encounters," Angela Merkel, the leading candidate in the race for German chancellor, told Haaretz in a recent exclusive interview.

"It is of the utmost importance that we preserve the vitality of relations and avoid turning them into something that is only formal and ceremonial," Merkel said.

Merkel, 51, the candidate of the opposition Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is a woman in a male-dominated party, a Protestant with no children in a party influenced by Catholics, of East German origin in a Western environment and is classed by European pundits as the most interesting phenomenon on the continent for a long time.

If Merkel wins Sunday's general election, she will be the first woman in Germany's history to serve as chancellor, and the first East German to run the most powerful country in Europe. The mass-circulation German newspaper Bild has already called her "the strongest woman in the Germanophonic world since Empress Maria Theresa." A Merkel victory will mean a new era for united Germany.

The streets of Berlin are festooned with election posters featuring a smiling Merkel in her trademark orange suit. She is not aware of the significance of the color in the Israeli summer of 2005. "The CDU adopted orange about two-and-a-half years ago, long before the initiative to disengage from the Gaza Strip was conceived and also before the eruption of the Ukranian revolution of Viktor Yushchenko," Merkel told Haaretz.

Merkel, though a strong supporter of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's policy, clearly has no intention of connecting to the Israeli "orange camp."

"With the disengagement, Prime Minister Sharon took a very bold step that allows me to look optimistically toward the future. This step can create a new approach in Israel toward the peace process."

Significant contribution

Merkel of course recognizes the leading role of the U.S. in the Middle East, but she intends to be more involved in the area and make a significant contribution to the process, including in the financial sphere.

Sharon and his German counterpart Gerhard Schroeder have not met for a long time, after Schroeder did not come through on the completion of financing for submarines Germany built for Israel. Israel had requested financing for the construction of two more Dolphin submarines at an estimated cost of about $1 billion, in addition to three it received at the beginning of the `90s, which, according to foreign reports, carry nuclear warheads.

Israel took delivery of the subs in compensation for Iraqi missile attacks on Israel during the first Gulf War.

With two-and-a-half subs already paid for by Germany, defense minister Peter Struck also expressed support for the deal, but Schroeder, faced with the most severe socioeconomic problems Germany has faced since World War II, refused to discuss the matter. Merkel will not discuss the matter publicly before the election, but it could be understood she intends to consider Israel's request if she is elected.

As a schoolchild in East Germany, Merkel learned that "Zionism" was a dirty word and a synonym for imperialism. Her father, a Protestant minister, and her mother, a teacher of English and Latin, taught her a more balanced perspective. Some see her warm attitude to Israel as a reaction to her Communist education.

Merkel notes the special place of the interview with Haaretz - "the only one, except for The New Yorker, that I chose to grant to the foreign press during the election campaign." She explains that Schroeder's decision to move up the elections shook up the political system.

She was unable to visit Israel, a must for candidates for chancellor, prior to the election, and she sees the interview with Haaretz as a kind of compensation. "Besides, if I lose, no one will be interested in me any more," she is quick to add, jokingly.

Positive signals

Jerusalem, which considers relations with Germany very significant, is watching the election campaign tensely. "We are certain to miss the days of Joschka Fischer," a senior Israeli official said. "`The friend,' a foreign minister beyond compare, an authority in Europe, who understood the Middle East conflict inside and out. A winning combination as far as Israel was concerned."

"However," the official added, "the signals we are getting from the Merkel camp are positive. She will apparently maintain a high profile as chancellor and she may be more involved in the conflict than Schroeder, who preferred to assign the Middle Eastern portfolio to the more dominant Fischer. It is believed Merkel will also work to thaw trans-Atlantic relations, which will certainly work in our favor."

Dr. Wolfgang Stock, former political correspondent for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and Merkel's first biographer, believes Merkel, who has a doctorate in theoretical physics, will be the architect of Germany's foreign policy, and will be very involved in the Middle East and sympathetic toward Israel. "I don't envy her foreign minister," he says jokingly.

Merkel sees anti-Semitism as a serious problem, and pledges to work to combat it. "We will fight with determination against this and use all legal means at our disposal. It is important to heighten the society's awareness of the meaning of anti-Semitism, which means the hatred of mankind.

"Sometimes people are not sufficiently aware of anti-Semitic tendencies. Therefore, we intend to treat education and training as a very important component. To achieve this we will expand the exchange programs for teenagers from Germany and Israel so that as many German youth as possible can visit Israel and vice versa. We will broaden the reciprocal learning and familiarity."

On the question of Iran, Merkel says, "We all have a common goal: to deny Iran nuclear weapons. Iran cannot avoid dialogue with us. It faces serious social and economic problems that it cannot overcome without international assistance. The unified approach of France, Britain and Germany, supported by the U.S., is the key to a political solution."