Anguish, conscience, history, politics, oil, and peace in the Mideast are all inextricably tangled in the current row between Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt.
It started with a TV interview Schmidt gave on April 30 on his return from a visit to Saudi Arabia. There was no sale of German tanks to the Saudis during this visit, but only because of domestic West German opposition to the deal. Both the Saudis and Schmidt reportedly wanted the deal.
In his interview Schmidt began by observing that there is a heavy mortgage on West German foreign policy. It can be summed up in one word, the Chancellor said -- Auschwitz. West Germany's relations with Israel must be burdened by Hitler Germany's extermination camps, just as West Germany's relations with France, the Netherlands, Poland, and other neighbors must be burdened by Hitler Germany's occupation of these countries. West Germany's relations with the Arabs could be considered "special" in the sense that they are not troubled by such a legacy.
But, the interviewer asked, why had Schmidt traveled to Saudi Arabia and never to Israel (a visit the Israelis have been urging ever since Schmidt became chancellor in the mid-70s)? Wasn't that the minimal moral gesture that West Germany owed the Jews?
"In the Palestinian conflict," replied Schmidt, "one cannot judge morality to be on one side and shrug one's shoulders about the other side. You can't do that. You can't do that especially if you're a German living in a divided nation and asserting a moral claim to self-determination for the German people. Then you have to recognize also the moral claim to self-determination for the Palestinian people."
The attitude of West Germans toward Palestinian "expellees and refugees from the West Bank and from the East Bank" is also a "moral question," Schmidt continued. And he noted that in practice, branding all the diverse groups within the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as "'terrorists' is the surest way to drive the PLO into the arms of Moscow."
He went on, "For me it is a tragedy of Greek proportions that after 2,000 years the Jews were finally again able to found their own state and that it doesn't seem possible to consolidate and secure it [Israel] in understanding with its neighbors.
"Some day the Israelis have to recognize that the Palestinians have the right to decide about their own future, about who is to represent them. No one but the Palestinians themselves can decide this. And if they should form a state, or decide to do so, they would at least have to decide about that.They must have the right to organization as a state.
"And some day the Palestinians have to recognize that the Israelis, like any other people in the world, also have the right to live as a state within recognized, secure borders.
"And if the two of them would only approach each other with the awareness that they both have ahead of them something to recognize about the other, then a great deal would be gained. But so far they haven't even recognized each other as partners in a dialogue."
These words stung Mr. Begin, a Jew who lost his family in the Nazi Holocaust, a guerrilla in the original struggle to found the state of Israel, a man who for decades refused to talk to Germans, a leader who is now fighting for his political life in a tough election campaign.
Schmidt's words also stung the Israeli public, as the universal approval of Begin's reply in Israel showed.
At an election rally Begin accused Schmidt of forgetting West Germany's moral debt to the 6 million Jews murdered by Germans. "From a moral point of view Schmidt's statements certainly rank as the most callous I have heard," Begin declared. "It seems that the Holocaust had conveniently slipped his memory, and he did not make mention of a million and a half small children murdered, of entire families wiped out. The German debt to the Jewish people can never end -- not in this generation and not in any other. The entire nation cheered on the murderers as long as they were victorious. But what do we hear? We hear of a [West German] commitment to those [Palestinians] who strove to complete what the Germans had started."
Begin added that Schmidt "must have concluded some very lucrative business deals with Saudi Arabia. . . . It is sheer arrogance and impudence to tell members of my generation -- the generation of the Holocaust and of Jewish rebirth -- that Germany has a debt to the Arabs.
"If you want to see unbridled greed and avarice, go see Giscard d'Estaing of France and Helmut Schmidt of Germany. The French have conveniently forgotten the lofty ideals of their revolution, and the Germans want to forget their unforgivable crimes. All they care about is how to sell arms at high prices and buy cheap oil. That is the full extent of their ethics and morality."
Schmidt, Begin continued, served in the German Army until the work of Jewish annihilation was almost finished. In repeating his theme in successive days, Begin added that Schmidt had never retracted his oath of allegiance to Hitler. He didn't know if Schmidt was a member of the Nazi party at the time. But he was a good officer on the Russian front, where most of the annihilation of Jews was going on.
Schmidt has chosen not to reply to Begin's accusations. At first the West German government spokesman called Begin's charges "misleading and insulting." By May 6, however, when the Israeli ambassador was due to see the West German Foreign Ministry's ranking diplomat on an official Israeli protest, the German spokesman said his government would remain silent, as it had no wish to escalate the polemics.
The West German press and public reaction has been that Schmidt said only hard truths about Israeli-Palestinian relations. A few commentators have suggested that the Germans should leave such truths to others to speak, however.
Schmidt's one strong defender in all this has been Nahum Goldmann, honorary president of the World Jewish Congress and a leading Zionist in the founding of Israel. In a radio interview the octagenarian Goldman -- who has long advocated Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation -- called Begin's accusations "tactless," "arrogant," and "demagogic," Goldmann said Schmidt "has for decades helped to work towards making amends, as far as possible, for Nazi crimes."
West German gestures of recompense have included financial payments to individual survivors of the Holocaust and to Israel. Until the oil crisis of 1973 they also included a strong pro-Israeli, anti-Arab influence within the European Community.
Since 1973 West Germany has practiced what it called a balanced policy in the Mideast, endorsing recognition of a Palestinian right to self-determination, but only in connection with an Arab recognition of Israel's rights to secure borders.