JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Shimon Peres said today that President Reagan's visit to the Bitburg military cemetery was "a terrible error" and Israel's defense minister said the Jewish people will never forgive him.
But some politicians and newspapers accused the Israeli leadership of making a belated and muted response to Reagan's Sunday visit to the cemetery, where 49 Nazi Waffen SS troops are buried. Some even questioned whether the promise of a U.S. emergency grant of $1.5 billion had lessened the tone of the criticism.
Speaking before the Israeli Knesset, or Parliament, on the 40th anniversary of the Allied victory over Nazi Germany in World War II, Peres called Reagan "a true friend of the Jewish people and the state of Israel."
"It is precisely for this reason that we feel deep pain at the terrible error of his visit to Bitburg," Peres said.
Peres said neither time nor death can obliterate the difference between those who carried out killings, such as Adolf Hitler's Waffen SS troops, and their victims. The Waffen SS was the combat arm of the SS, the elite organization that provided the guards for Hitler's death camps.
'Abyss' Between Dead
"Gravestones haven't the power to obliterate the abyss that yawns between those who led to others' murder and those who were led," Peres said.
Jewish and veterans groups as well as many U.S. legislators had asked Reagan not to go to Bitburg during his state visit to West Germany. Reagan has also been criticized for saying German soldiers buried at Bitburg were "just as surely" victims of Nazism as concentration camp victims.
Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, dedicating a memorial sculpture to Jewish Holocaust victims at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, said: "The historic mistake of President Reagan was in equating murderers with their victims.
"For this he will not be forgiven either by enlightened humanity or the Jewish people."
But Trade Minister Ariel Sharon said the government had "stuttered" in its response to Reagan's visit.
Different Response From Begin
Had hard-liner Menachem Begin been Israel's prime minister, Sharon said, "he would have spoken to the Americans firmly and clearly on this matter.
"Here people are bending over, retreating, God forbid, not to upset the non-Jews. They don't know how to stand up to the Gentiles," Sharon added.
Begin, who has been in virtual seclusion since resigning as prime minister in September, 1983, said in an interview with Israel radio that "the Jewish people went through a very sad day" Sunday.
The independent newspaper Maariv connected the timing of the Israeli response with the notification by the Reagan Administration that it will ask for $1.5 billion in emergency aid for Israel.
The suspicion arises, Maariv said, "that we were partners to a deal to rehabilitate the monsters of the SS with no more than a polite Israeli complaint--in exchange for a billion and a half."