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Israel keeps officially silent on Reagan trip to avoid offending US

Israel's government has greeted President Reagan's planned visit to a German military cemetery with official silence, despite widespread condemnation of the trip both here and in the United States. Although individual Cabinet ministers have cabled protests to the White House, neither Israel's ambassador to Washington nor the prime minister has registered a public complaint.

``It has become a major conflict in the US that we do not want to add to. Our position is clear. We don't have to explain our position,'' a Foreign Ministry spokesman here said.

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Aides close to Prime Minister Shimon Peres say he believes Israel should avoid offending a president who has been one of this nation's staunchest supporters since Mr. Reagan took office in 1981.

Israeli officials say they are satisfied that Reagan made an unwitting mistake, and that his decision to go to the Bitburg cemetery -- where soldiers of the SS (an elite quasi-military unit of Hitler's Nazi party) are buried -- does not reflect the President's true feelings about the Holocaust.

During Reagan's tenure, American aid to Israel has grown to unprecedented levels. The US has consistently defended Israel in international organizations and have helped in such projects as the rescue of Ethiopian Jews from Sudanese refugee camps.

Israel is waiting for the administration to approve its request for an additional $800 million in emergency aid. The two countries have also just signed a free trade agreement that Israel expects will almost double its exports to the United States.

In short, ``there is much friendship between the two countries. This incident has put us in a very sensitive position,'' says an official who spoke on condition that he not be named.

There also is a desire, another knowledgeable source says, to avoid the appearance of ``one government preaching morality to another government.''

This approach represents a distinct policy change from the prime ministership of Menachem Begin. Mr. Begin was known for his tendency to lecture visiting heads of state about the Holocaust.

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``Menachem Begin would have made the strongest condemnation, immediately,'' of Reagan's proposed visit, a Foreign Ministry official says.

Peres has taken pains since coming to office last September to draw a distinction between his diplomatic, conciliatory style, and the confrontational attitude of his immediate predecessors -- Begin and Yitzhak Shamir.

So far, there has been no public criticism of Peres for failing to make a strong statement on Reagan's decision to visit the Bitburg military cemetery.

It is impossible to overestimate the extent of the national obsession with the Holocaust, in which millions of Jews died at the hands of the Nazis before and during World War II. In Israel, most families suffered the loss of at least one relative during World War II.

News of Reagan's planned visit to the cemetery broke last week when Israel was commemorating the Holocaust.

April 18 was Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Day in Israel. The night before, Mr. Peres made his only public comment on Reagan's planned trip during a ceremony at Yad Vashem, the nation's Holocaust museum.

In a speech largely devoted to the need to bring more Jewish immigrants to Israel, Peres said that while reconciliation with enemies was possible, reconciliation was not possible with ``evil.''

Shlomo Hillel, speaker of the Israeli Knesset (parliament), spoke about the planned visit during a Knesset session on Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Day.

``This morning we heard with relief that the plan has been changed,'' Hillel said, referring to Reagan's decision to visit the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

``But we still cannot comprehend the intention of paying honor to the fighters of the [Nazis'] annihilation machine.''

Such an outcry was raised by Jewish groups and veteran organizations in the US that the President announced he would visit the Nazi concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen with West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl in the morning before laying a wreath at Bitburg Cemetery May 8.

Some Israelis said this week they still hope the public outrage will persuade Reagan to change his mind.

``We sent a telegram to President Reagan to cancel his visit,'' said Yitzhak Arad, chairman of the Yad Vashem directorate.

``It is very hard for us to imagine that he is going to visit a military cemetery where SS men are buried,'' Mr. Arad said. ``At the war crimes trials in Nuremburg, the SS was found to be involved in criminal acts. The US was a major partner in the war crimes trials.

Arad said he understood the Israeli government's decision not to register a formal protest over the trip.

``It is an American matter, between the American people and their President,'' Arad said. ``And Mr. Reagan is one of the great friends of the Jewish people and Israel.''

Mr. Hillel said his telegram was sent to the President on behalf of the entire Knesset. Hillel said that had he been prime minister, ``I would have spoken my mind,'' to the President.

But Hillel said he understood that ``there is a certain amount of embarrassment for the prime minister to express his view on this, as a head of one administration to say to the head of another administration.''

Hillel said he did not believe that Israel's relations with the US will be harmed if the President goes through with his planned visit.

``Even if we judge that the President has been mistaken, it doesn't have anything to do with Israel's relations with the US, with the office of the presidency, or with Mr. Reagan,'' Hillel said. ``We know really, his attitude.''

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