To sell or not to sell tanks to Saudi Arabia -- that is the question exercising Bonn. A yes answer would mean a much more activist global role for Bonn. It could help stabilize the Mideast, assure crucial petroleum imports from West Germany's largest oil supplier, and give a needed boost to the West German economy. It would also, however, upset the Israelis, could help destabilize Saudi Arabia, and would arouse memories of the German arms cartels that fueled Hitler's conquests.
A no answer would satisfy those who still see a special moral demand for West German restraint and foreign policy passivity because of Hitler's legacy.
Those cautiously urging yes include some government officials from Chancellor Helmut Schmidt's Social Democratic Party (SPD); the coalition's foreign minister , Hans-Dietrich Genscher, from the Free Democratic Party (FDP); and the opposition conservatives.
Those saying "nein" include especially the left wing of Mr. Schmidt's SPD. Issues dividing the left wing against the "government wing" of the Chancellor's party, as well as against the coalition Free Democrats and the opposition conservatives, are a recurring phenomenon. Such a division has been conspicuous in the domestic debate over nuclear power and in the foreign policy debate over bringing longer- range nuclear weapons into the NATO arsenal.
On the issue of selling sophisticated weapons to Saudi Arabia, however, the SPD left wing enjoys the sympathies of a broader spectrum of opinion than it engages in the NATO weapons issue.
The December 1979 decision to arm NATO with longer- range nuclear weapons was in many ways a decision that followed from West Germany's commitment to collective security and the need to offset Soviet military might in Europe. The decision to sell the Leopard-2 main battle tank to Saudi Arabia, however, would thrust West Germany into the maelstrom of Mideast politics in an activist way that Bonn has shunned until now.
At this point the issue has been raised by the Saudi request to buy 300 (some unconfirmed reports say 600) of the high- performance Leopard-2 tanks, plus several other advanced West German weapons. The request has not yet been made official, pending development of a West German consensus in favor of the sales.
The Saudi request collides with a West German policy, dating from the beginning of SPD rule in 1969, against arms sales to "areas of tension."
The definition of "areas of tension" has been elastic. Four years ago, China was buying allegedly civilian helicopters from West Germany that needed only to have gun turrets mounted on them to be identical with Luftwaffe helicopters.
Iran placed orders for West German submarines. South Africa and various Middle Eastern and South American countries are reported to have purchased West German arms clandestinely from the ostensible legal customers.
These examples were all considered to be exceptions to the rule however.
A sale of the magnitude of the proposed Saudi purchases would clearly be something more than an exception. It would mark an entirely new policy of case-by-case evaluation of West German interests rather than blanket withdrawal from all areas of tension.
It could quickly bring West Germany, with its efficient and now rebuilt arms industry, into the big league of weapons exporters, joining the Soviet Union (whose weapons constituted 4 percent of total exports in 1976, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute), the US (3.3 percent of exports), Britain (1.26 percent), and France (almost 1 percent). Arms sales were only 0.13 percent of West German exports in 1976.
A hint that Israel might reconcile itself to West German tank sales to Saudi Arabia has come from Knesset Vice- President Moshe Meron. He suggested to a West German radio interviewer that if the sale does go through, then Israel, too , should be able to buy advanced weapons from West Germany.
The final West German decisionmaker, Chancellor Schmidt, has not yet declared himself on the issue. Political Bonn assumes that he favors the deal, however, and cites as evidence the hedged public approval expressed by Hans- Jurgen Wischnewski, an Arab expert who is Schmidt's troubleshooter and an SPD deputy chairman.
"Whenever a country with which we have especially close economic ties has a special request," Mr. Wischnewski has said, "it is our duty to investigate it very s eriously."