Leading article: An ill-timed expedition from Europe

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It is unfortunate as well as ill-considered that the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, should have chosen Israel as the stage for her second significant foreign policy outing following her trip to the United States, just after the Palestinian elections and before Israel goes to the polls.

The historic sensitivity in relations between Germany and Israel, which inhibits German leaders from saying anything critical of their Israeli hosts, means such visits can always be interpreted as expressing the views of Europe when what they primarily reflect is German sensitivity over the Holocaust.

Such visits need to be carefully timed. Admittedly, that is difficult in the Middle East where unforeseen "events" intrude with terrible regularity. But the German leader's decision to make her high-profile visit in between two well advertised elections does not fall into this category and was easily avoidable.

Instead, Mrs Merkel has ploughed on, issuing policy pronouncements that will affect, and partly bind, Germany's European partners. She quickly ruled out talks with Hamas, though by refusing to meet its leaders she must have known she was taking sides in an internal Israeli political debate about how Israel should respond to the Hamas victory. At the same time, by saying she will meet the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, she appears to be playing a game of favourites within Palestinian politics.

If Europe does want to help Mr Abbas and the now weakened Fatah movement out of its difficulties following its electoral drubbing, this ostentatious favouritism is not the way to do it. The one thing we all should have learned from the recent election is that Palestinians have taken all those Western sermons on democracy to heart and have decided to select their own leaders, not put their faith in men whose main virtue is being fêted by outsiders. If Europe wants to maintain its role as a more neutral broker in the Middle East than the US, it was unwise of Mrs Merkel to have drawn a line in the sand so early on.

Instead, Mrs Merkel's interventions have set a benchmark for the European Union, and should any European leader now be seen to talk to Hamas, they will be regarded as having broken the Merkel line. It would have been far better for the German Chancellor to have delayed her visit and refrained from making gestures that will have ramifications for the whole of Europe in its relations with the Middle East.

What is curious about the whole episode is that Mrs Merkel has gained a reputation in Germany as an expert in the arts of factional politics. If so, it is a skill she has signally failed to demonstrate in her Middle Eastern foray.