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Kohl's trip to Israel didn't fit the neat blueprint

The original plan was that West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl would deal decisively with Israeli relations in his first honeymoon year in office. He would go to Israel in September 1983 on the first official visit by a chancellor since Willy Brandt's journey a decade before.

In a friendly but firm fashion Dr. Kohl would explain the facts of life to his hosts: that four decades after World War II, today's Germans can no longer be held responsible for Hitler's murder of 6 million Jews; that Europe supports Palestinian self-determination as well as mutual rejection of force and Arab recognition of Israel's right to exist; and that a West Germany that has lagged far behind the United States, France, and Britain in arms sales abroad must now begin making some weapons available to moderate Arab oil suppliers.

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Kohl hoped to be able to carry off this very sensitive adjustment of bilateral relations for several reasons. He and his conservatives had a good record of supporting Israel. He is West Germany's first ''postwar'' chancellor, a man too young to have been in Hitler's Army even as cannon fodder. The Israelis were presumed ready to restore civil relations after then-Premier Menachem Begin's virulent attacks on then-Chancellor Helmut Schmidt in 1981. And Bonn has promised to restrict sales to Saudi Arabia to ''defensive'' weapons (i.e., no tanks).

Besides, Kohl's deference in visiting Israel before Arab countries, and the lag before any arms would be sent to Saudi Arabia - until after the Euromissiles were stationed in December - should have provided for a cooling-off period.

But the West German calculation didn't work. The timing was thrown off by Mr. Begin's sudden resignation and the necessary postponement of Kohl's trip. Kohl didn't get to Israel until late January 1984, well after his domestic honeymoon had ended, three months after he had journeyed to Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia and signed a treaty with the Saudis on security cooperation.

The postponement also meant that Kohl arrived in Israel just after he had deployed new NATO missiles - and therefore just at the time the Saudis were expecting Bonn's final approval of their several-year-old request for arms.

Kohl proceeded with his original plan nonetheless. He said (in more diplomatic language) that Jerusalem could not forever have a veto over Bonn's Mideast policy. He noted that 60 percent of today's West Germans were born after Hitler.

It didn't work. Despite the chancellor's visit to the Holocaust Museum and to a kibbutz, the tone of his trip was less one of goodwill than confrontation over the impending Saudi arms sales. Kohl argued that both nations should look to the future rather than the past.

But even moderate Israelis retorted that German arms deliveries to Saudi Arabia are a ''violation of historical sensitivity.'' And some Israelis geared up for an anti-German letter campaign to American senators and congressmen.

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On the economic side, the Israelis took it amiss that Bonn is not able to increase its annual 140 million mark ($50 million) development aid to Israel. They did get some promise of special consideration of Israeli produce exports to the European Community after Spain and Portugal join the Community. But the Israelis did not get a guarantee that Bonn would block Spanish and Portuguese entry until Israel's trading interests were fully protected.

At home, the opposition Social Democrats are eager to capitalize on what they term Kohl's failure in Israel. They called a parliamentary debate on the topic Thursday and heckled Kohl repeatedly about his taking to Israel as part of the press contingent a man who once wrote anti-Jewish tracts for Hitler.

They denied - as Kohl claims - that he is simply following policy decisions of his Social Democratic predecessor in selling arms to Saudi Arabia. And they don't mind the irony that three years ago it was opposition leader Kohl who was accusing then-Chancellor Schmidt of not being friendly enough to Israel.

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