Israel Notes with ‘sorrow and Pain’ the ‘painful Mistake’ by Reagan’s Visit to the Bitburg Cemetery

There can be no reconciliation with history; lessons must be learned from it, President Chaim Herzog declared to representatives from 18 countries who gathered at the Presidential residence today to mark the 40th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany.

Premier Shimon Peres, addressing a special session of the Knesset convened for the occasion, said Israel noted with “deep sorrow and pain” the “painful mistake” by the President of the United States who yesterday placed a wreath at the war cemetery in Bitburg, West Germany, where members of the Waffen SS are buried along with other German war dead.

But, Peres added, he regards President Reagan as a true friend of the Jewish people and of Israel. Hatred, he said, should not be answered by hatred “but death cannot obliterate the difference between those buried as murderers and those buried as the murder victims … no monument can bridge the abyssmal gap between those who led to murder and those who died in the murder.”

NO RECONCILIATION WITH NAZISM

Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin spoke in much the same vein when he unveiled a monument at the Heroes and Martyrs Memorial at the Yad Vashem today before an audience of 3,000. There can be “no reconciliation, not with Nazism, and not with the Nazis,” Rabin declared.

The monument, massive granite blocks in the shape of a hexagon, represents the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust and is also a tribute to the 1.5 million Jewish resistance fighters and partisans of World War II.

All of these events were held in the shadow of Reagan’s visit to Bitburg, juxtaposed with an earlier visit yesterday to the Jewish memorial at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp site. Reagan’s act aroused anger and anguish among Jews all over the world and an unexpected controversy among Israelis.

Rabin expressed what was probably the most forceful criticism of Reagan at the Yad Vashem ceremony when he declared: “There can be no reconciliation with Nazism, with the Nazis and all related to them. The American President’s historic mistake was to equate the murderers and their victims. He can never be forgiven for that equation — neither by progressive mankind nor by the Jewish people.”

In a radio interview earlier in the day, Deputy Premier and Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, the leader of Likud, said Reagan had made “a tragic mistake — a mistake by a friend.”

ISRAEL’S ‘MILD’ REACTION SPARKS CRITICISM

The public controversy here is not over Reagan’s act — Israelis overwhelmingly condemned it — but over what many perceive to be the government’s “mild” reaction to it.

Ariel Sharon, the Minister of Commerce and Industry, an outspoken Likud hardliner, maintained today that had Menachem Begin still been Prime Minister instead of Laborite Peres, there would have been “no stuttering response” to Reagan’s Bitburg visit. Sharon accused the Labor component of the national unity government of not knowing how to “stand up to the gentiles.”

But Begin, in one of his rare interviews since he retired into semi-seclusion in August, 1983, told the Associated Press that yesterday at Bitburg was one of the saddest days in Jewish history. But he declined to criticize Reagan directly.

Communications Minister Amnon Rubinstein, an ally of Labor, retorted to Sharon. He said the Likud minister should check his own party before accusing others. Rubinstein noted that it was Shamir who rejected a proposal that the Cabinet issue a statement against Reagan’s visit to Bitburg.

Shamir, asked by reporters if he thought the government’s response to Bitburg had been too tame, replied, “That is a matter of taste and appreciation. I think that what has been said by the government had to be said.”

NEXT STORY