Kohl leaves troubles at home to confront strained Israeli ties
''Out of the frying pan, into the fire'' might well be West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl's motto as he escapes heated up domestic politics for a few days by visiting Israel Jan. 24 to 29.
Dr. Kohl leaves behind the simmering Kiessling affair that threatens to topple his defense minister and the Flick affair that threatens to topple his economics minister.
But on this first West German state visit to Israel in over a decade he faces an equally simmering situation as he tries to meet Arab requests for arms without offending Israel.
West German-Israeli relations are still sensitive 40 years after Hitler's regime murdered 6 million Jews. Just how strained these relations are is perhaps symbolized by Kohl's elaborate roundabout helicopter route from Jerusalem to Tiberias to avoid flying over Israeli-occupied territory.
However, relations are not as bad as they were three years ago, when Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin accused Chancellor Helmut Schmidt of ''unbridled greed and avarice'' and called him ''a good officer in Hitler's army,'' who ''has never broken his oath of allegiance to Hitler.''
Kohl will do his best to keep the mood friendly, starting with his gift of three letters from Zionist prophet Theodor Herzl to Baron Manteuffel. But the Bonn leader is determined, officials say, not to let Israel forever exercise veto power over West German relations with Arab countries. And bilateral clashes appear inevitable over future West German arms sales to Saudi Arabia in particular.
Officials hope that Kohl has enough political capital by now to effect the transition to this next stage of West German-Israeli relations. He and his Christian Democrats have for years shown special consideration for Israel, beginning with Chancellor Konrad Adenauer's initiation of extensive reparation payments to Israel and to individual Jewish survivors of Hitler's Holocaust. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir is manifestly easier to deal with than the embittered Mr. Begin, who lost so many of his own family in the holocaust.
Kohl's approach, according to insiders, is to continue to bar sales to Arab countries of the most offensive weapon, the Leopard tank, but to authorize sales of other arms the Saudis would like to buy. Kohl already ruled out tank sales after his visit to Riyadh last fall. But he would like to meet some other longstanding requests of West Germany's important oil source and creditor. In December, a Saudi team spent almost three weeks in West Germany looking at armored vehicles, radar, electronic firing systems, and other weapons for possible purchase.
Kohl's absence from Bonn this week does at least remove him from another round in the agonizingly slow resolution of the Kiessling and Flick affairs at home. Disgruntled senior Army commanders are assembling today to hear the Army chief of staff explain Gen. Gunter Kiessling's dismissal. A Bundestag committee hearing on the sacking will be held Jan. 26. Parliamentary hearings are also proceeding this week in the Flick payoff scandal pending judicial decisions as to whether Economics Minister Otto Lambsdorff and others will be indicted.
If either of the affairs does force a minister to resign, Bonn's political balance would be seriously disrupted. Kohl would not lose his government majority by any means - but he could lose the coalition balance that has so far kept his voluble ally and rival Franz Josef Strauss at arm's length from Bonn. Mr. Strauss, Bavarian premier and head of the Christian Democrats' sister conservative party, the Bavarian Christian Social Union, has periodically expressed his interest in coming to Bonn as some kind of superminister.
Christian Social Union-inspired speculation about such a move has focused on the Economics Ministry - especially since the Free Democratic Party, which now holds this post, has no likely candidate to replace Mr. Lambsdorff if he goes.
The West German press is now also asking, however, whether Strauss might not again take over the Defense Ministry if incumbent Manfred Worner has to resign. And Strauss himself has been saying that if evidence of Kiessling's frequenting of homosexual bars - the grounds for Mr. Worner's early retirement of the four-star general as a security risk - proves to be flimsy, then Kiessling must be fully rehabilitated. In such a case, it is inconceivable that Worner could continue as defense minister.
Kohl has conspicuously backed Lambsdorff and assured his tenure in the Cabinet pending any indictment of him on connection with alleged Flick concern payoffs to political parties for tax benefits. Equally conspicuously,
Kohl has been only lukewarm in supporting Worner in his present troubles.
Strauss's first term as defense minister ended abruptly 20 years ago after he lied to the Bundestag about ordering a search of the offices of the magazine Der Spiegel and the arrest of the defense minister in Spain. That action followed Spiegel's publication of a leaked Air Force memorandum about a preemptive strike.