The main pro-Israel lobbying group asked President Reagan yesterday not to "shame the victims of Nazi tyranny" by visiting a German military cemetery next month, and death camp survivor Elie Wiesel said West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl should release Reagan from his pledge to make the stop.
Reagan and Kohl have held firm against growing pressure from Jewish Americans to skip a wreath-laying ceremony May 5 at West Germany's Bitburg cemetery, which contains the graves of 47 of Hitler's brutal SS troops. On Friday, the president telephoned Kohl to reaffirm his commitment to visit Bitburg.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which began its annual meeting here yesterday with an address by Secretary of State George P. Shultz, approved a letter to Reagan saying that "as human beings, as Americans and as Jews," its members believe Reagan should cancel his plans.
"To honor those SS soldiers who spread terror and death . . . dishonors their victims -- the Jews and the American GIs they slaughtered only 30 miles away at Malmedy -- and it dishonors those Germans who are today working to build a democratic and free Germany," the letter said. More than 100 U.S. prisoners were massacred at Malmedy during the Battle of the Bulge.
Despite the emotional tone of the letter, the AIPAC delegates gave a warm reception to Shultz, interrupting him with enthusiastic applause 26 times as he reaffirmed the administration's commitment to Israel's security and help with its economic problems. Although Shultz briefly answered questions after his speech, no one asked about the Bitburg visit.
Wiesel, chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, said on ABC's "This Week With David Brinkley" that Kohl "holds the key" to releasing Reagan from his commitment to visit the cemetery. "I think if Chancellor Kohl really seeks reconciliation, and I think he does, he should come out with a statement now and say to the president, 'Mr. President, I realize now that this journey could be difficult for you and therefore I release you from your commitment. And please let us go elsewhere,' " Wiesel said.
In a moving speech at the White House Friday, when he received a Congressional Gold Medal from Reagan, Wiesel implored the president to reconsider his plan.
Wiesel's suggestion that Kohl could rescue Reagan from what has become an embarrassing and divisive itinerary was echoed yesterday by Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), who suggested on NBC's "Meet the Press" that the chancellor put forth an alternative to Bitburg.
"I don't know how they're going to get out of it," Dole said. "It's a serious problem that isn't going to go away."
In the wake of protest surrounding the cemetery stop, the White House expanded Reagan's itinerary to include a visit to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
Wiesel also disputed Reagan's earlier contention that some soldiers buried at Bitburg were Nazi victims "just as surely" as Jews and others sent to concentration camps. "Comparing the victims to those who are not victims" is wrong, Wiesel said. "The SS must be still considered as an outcast of human history."
Rep. Stephen J. Solarz (D-N.Y.), also a member of the Holocaust Memorial Council, said he "rather doubts" that anyone will resign from the council to protest Reagan's trip. "I think cooler heads will prevail," said Solarz, who appeared on the ABC program with Wiesel.
Wiesel suggested that a more appropriate site for Reagan and Kohl to "pay tribute to the real heroes of Germany" would be the German prison where anti-Nazi resistance leaders were beheaded.
Shultz, in his AIPAC speech, appealed to the Arab world to cooperate with Jordan's King Hussein in the effort to find a basis for expanded peace negotiations between Israel and a Jordanian delegation that would include Palestinians who are not members of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
"Now is the time for the Arabs to let negotiations proceed," Shultz said. "Now is the time for the Arabs to let King Hussein come forward. There is no alternative to direct negotiation; the longer this truth is evaded, the longer the Palestinian people are the victims."