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Behind the Headlines Bitburg Controversy Has Not Damaged Relations Between W. Germany, Israel

June 26, 1985
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

A series of interviews suggests that Israel’s special relationship with West Germany is not only thought of as desirable, but is considered durable as well.

The Israeli envoy, Yitzhak Ben-Ari, a Viennese native who is fluent in German, said that the embarrassing Bitburg affair has not damaged German-Israel relations. As he tells it, the Israeli Embassy has received a stream of complimentary letters for the manner in which he conducted himself as the controversy unfolded.

Ben-Ari criticized the joint German-American decision to go ahead with the ceremony in Bitburg, where 49 members of the SS lie buried. But, breaking ranks with the German-Jewish leadership, he showed up for the ceremony in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Asked why he appeared in Bergen-Belsen, Ben-Ari said he did not want “to burn our bridges” in West Germany.

Heinz Westphal, the vice-president of the West German parliament, and the chairman of the German-Israel Society, agrees that Israel and Germany weathered the Bitburg affair rather well.

Like many Germans, Westphal believes that Israel-German relations are much better now that Shimon Peres is Prime Minister. Under Menachem Begin, they deteriorated, reaching their nadir in 1981 after Begin accused Helmut Schmidt of having been a “Nazi officer” during World War II.


In Westphal’s view, Germany’s new generation tends to be “more critical” of certain aspects of Israel policy, the Lebanese war being the most pointed example. But Westphal, a Social Democrat, contends that Germany and Israel will maintain the special relationship they have formed after 20 years. Asked to comment on Franz-Josef Strauss’ recent comment that “it is time for our relationship with Israel to become normal and relaxed,” Westphal said: “All those who wish to ‘normalize’ it do not understand the past. We cannot escape the responsibility of the past.”

Wolfgang-Gunther Lerch, the 38-year-old Middle East editor of Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, probably West Germany’s most prestigious newspaper, sees no prospect for the normalization which Strauss advocates. “The past is so strong in Germany that, in 25 to 30 years from now, there will still be a special relationship between us and the Israelis. The majority of Germans, I think, are sensitive to this.”

Despite the consensus here that Germany and Israel are bound by intimate, unbreakable ties, irritants inflame the relationship.

From West Germany’s perspective, Israel erred badly in invading Lebanan, and is short-sighted in its determination to retain the West Bank and the Gaza Strip with its hostile Palestinian population. Germany does not recognize the PLO, if only because Bonn declines to extend recognition to “liberation movements, ” but Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Ge scher played an important role in formulating the 1930 EEC Venice Declaration to which Israel objects so much.

In addition to calling for the PLO’s “association with” Mideast peace negotiations, the Venice Declaration urged Israel to end its occupation of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights, and termed Israeli settlements there as “a serious obstacle” to the peace process.

Recently, West Germany and other members in the EEC endorsed the Feb. II peace proposal put forward by King Hussein and Yasir Arafat. Israel rejected it.

To Israel’s chagrin, West Germany has also backed President Ronald Reagan’s 1982 peace plan and has noted the “positive elements” in the Arab League Fez proposals (one clause of which accepts the PLO as the representative body of the Palestinians).

Juergen Moellemann, the second German minister of state for foreign affairs, has gone on record as having said that the EEC should be active in promoting peace in the Middle East.

Asked to explain German policy, a senior official in the foreign ministry said that Bonn’s adherence to EEC resolutions is predicated on a desire to add to U.S. efforts to defuse the Arab-Israeli dispute.


According to observers, the issue with the greatest potential for upsetting German-Israel relations is one of German arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

Several years ago, Helmut Schmidt went to Saudi Arabia,a valuable oil supplier, and discussed the possible transfer of German weaponry. Schmidt, who incurred Menachem Begin’s wrath by saying West Germany had a “moral commitment” to the Palestinians, declared upon returning to Bonn that it was “not feasible at present” for his country to supply the Saudis with such equipment as the Leopard tank, Gepard anti-aircraft tanks, Roland ground-to-air missiles or Marder armored personnel carriers.

Schmidt said the entire matter would be debated by the Bundestag, the parliament, in spite of guidelines which forbid the export of German arms to so-called areas of tension.

Since then, the question has been debated endlessly, without a decision.

When Kohl visited Israel last year, he said that, despite his hosts’ objections, West Germany would indeed sell Saudi Arabia some weaponry.

In an interview in his office, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Alois Mertes told this reporter that the matter remains under consideration. “You can be sure we will take into account the interests of Israel,” he added. Mertes died June 16 at age 63.

If anything is certain, the sale of German arms to Saudi Arabia will punch a hole in West Germany’s relationship with Israel.

Ben-Ari says that, to the best of his knowledge, West Germany has agreed to sell Saudi Arabia what it believes would be defensive weapons, but not the Leopard tank. He said such a sale would most certainly damage German-Israel relations.

Heinz Westphal concurs with Ben-Ari’s assessment, but Helmut Schafer, who represents the Free Democratic Party in parliament, claims the matter is “still in the air.” For moral reasons, he is against the idea that German arms might one day shed Jewish blood. But Schafer, a foreign policy expert, points out that the Israelis sell their arms to countries which either do not have relations with Israel (Taiwan) or countries which are simply hostile to its very existence (Iran).

Wolfgang Gunther Lerch, who does not believe that a deal will be signed, is of the opinion that such arms would not pose a threat to Israel.

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