Inevitably, the Holocaust still dominates any Israeli-West German visit and the several dialogues it entails. Four decades after the fact, the unimaginable horror of willful German murder of millions of Jews still marks the special political friendship that the new nations of West Germany and Israel have nurtured in the intervening years.
Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres was quiet in his own tribute to members of his family and other victims of the Nazi terror when he visited the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp yesterday. But as the first Israeli prime minister to visit West Germany in 10 years, he made a point of laying wreaths at the site of the camp the morning of his first full day here.
The Holocaust looms over all his contacts across the West German political spectrum during his three days here.
Mainstream conservatives like Chancellor Helmut Kohl appreciate Mr. Peres's discretion in centering his Bergen-Belsen visit not on a major public ceremony, but on an intensely private prayer for the dead and for peace. And the conservatives welcome Peres's stress on looking to the future rather than the past, along with ``the new Germany that is emerging from its own agonies and mistakes,'' as the prime minister said in luncheon remarks Monday.
The conservatives were the ones, under Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, who started Bonn's voluntary payment of what has now amounted to 36 billion marks (about $15 billion) to Israel as a gesture of recompense for the atrocities of a former German state. (East Germany, by contrast, refuses to assume any responsibility for the acts of Hitler's Germany and has never given a pfennig to Israel or to individual Jews.)
In retrospect, conservatives are proud of this record, even though many of them in fact opposed any restitution. It was Mr. Adenauer himself who insisted on paying reparations, because of his own loathing for what the Nazis had done. The German conservatives are also proud of their staunch political support of Israel over the years -- and of Bonn's record as Israel's second-most-important political and economic ally and as a friend of Israel's within the European Community.
In return, Dr. Kohl and other conservatives have said repeatedly, they think the time has come to normalize Bonn's foreign relations at last, to proceed unemotionally in promoting the vital interests that West Germany and Israel clearly share, and to stop having to make constant professions of penitence for the crimes of their fathers' generation.
Yet the past just won't go away.
Peres arrived in the wake of revived controversy here over one of the first payments ever made by a private German company to Jewish survivors who were forced to work for leading firms in concentration camps in Hitler's Germany. The fact that the company that is now making these payments is a subsidiary of the multimillion-dollar Flick concern that slipped lavish secret funds to politicians in the 1970s only makes the parent firm's previous refusal to pay Jewish survivors all the more glaring.
Kohl also found that the past would not easily go away when he visited Israel in early 1984 and when he conducted a series of World War II anniversary commemorations last spring.
He offended his Israeli hosts during his visit by telling them it was time to stop blaming today's Germans -- the majority of whom were born after 1945 -- for the atrocities of their fathers and grandfathers. His concept of normalization further offended the White House and many Americans last spring when he insisted that President Reagan also honor German military war dead at the Bitburg cemetery.
Peres is addressing these mainstream West German conservatives in his five or six hours of talks with Kohl and in his public expression both of ``the deepest shock about the past and the deepest hope about the future.''
But perhaps even more, Peres is addressing a different set of West German conservatives: those who are themselves still deeply pained by the German-Jewish legacy.
These are epitomized by President Richard von Weizs"acker. In a speech last May that deeply moved Israelis and Germans alike, he raised the key question of how so many Germans could have willed themselves not to know that genocide of the Jews was being carried out in the German name. Mr. von Weizs"acker called on Germans ``to face up as well as we can to the truth,'' and he called on the new generation that was ``not responsible for what happened over 40 years ago'' to be, nonetheless, ``responsible for the historical consequences.''
On the left, Peres will also be conducting two rather different dialogues in West Germany. The first is with the Social Democratic Party that Labor Party leader Peres has long had close ties to. The second is with the radical left that embraced the cause of Israel in the 1950s and 1960s but turned pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli --sometimes violently so -- after the 1967 Mideast war.
In the first dialogue there are no problems. As a representative of the old school of Central European Jewry -- and an early prot'eg'e of the legendary Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion -- Peres has had close contacts with trade unions and the moderate German left throughout his political career. He and Social Democratic chairman Willy Brandt met over dinner Monday as old friends. And the Social Democrats welcome Peres especially warmly after the vitriolic period when former Prime Minister Menachem Begin bitterly attacked then-Social Democratic Chancellor Helmut Schmidt.
The radical left is much more problematic. Peres will definitely not be meeting with the leftist terrorist fringe that trained for guerrilla urban warfare in militant Palestinian camps -- or that participated in the hijacking of Israeli and other Jewish airline passengers in Entebbe, Uganda, a decade ago.
Peres has arranged to meet with the respectable end of the radical left, however, as represented by some members of the Green Party. A number of Greens or Green supporters make anti-Semitic jibes in referring to Jewish capitalists and landlords; some have compared Israel's treatment of Palestinians with Hitler Germany's treatment of the Jews.
Repeated German and Israeli criticism of the Greens for such comments finally seems to be having an effect. When J"urgen Tritten, the Greens' parliamentary leader in the state of Lower Saxony, where Bergen-Belsen is located, declined an invitation to have lunch with Peres Monday and repeated the charge of Israeli ``state terrorism,'' other Greens chastised him and warned that Germans of all people must be restrained in condemning Israeli policy.
Peres's remaining contacts with West Germans here are less demanding. He will be talking with youths in West Berlin, and he has of course been meeting with representatives of the few tens of thousands left in the Jewish community in West Germany.