It is not often that I agree with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but I do regarding his reaction to German Nobel Laureate Gunter Grass’s poem “What Must Be Said” that has taken media by storm in the past two weeks. In this poem printed in The Atlantic, Grass repeats the canard that Israel is the most dangerous nation in the Middle East because of its threats of a first strike on Iranian nuclear facilities. He charges hypocrisy given Israel’s own alleged nuclear capability. Netanyahu called such a comparison a “shameful moral equivalence.”
For good reasons Israel maintains a policy of “nuclear ambiguity.” The Jewish state is thought to have begun developing nuclear capability decades ago because of threats by her neighbors to destroy “the Zionist entity” and drive the Jewish people into the sea. Most Arab nations now accept the existence of Israel even if they do not have formal peace treaties with her. However, threats to destroy the Jewish state have not stopped. Today, Iran is the chief culprit.
Given Iran’s denial of Israel’s right to exist, we cannot ignore the significant differences between Iran and Israel when it comes to their each having nuclear weapons. First, Israel is a democracy and Iran is a military theocratic dictatorship. Second, Israel has never called for wiping any other nation off the map as Iran repeatedly does concerning Israel. Third, no other nuclear nation (e.g. Israel, Pakistan, India, Russia, or the United States) has ever threatened genocide against another people as Iran has done towards Israel. And fourth, no other nuclear nation has repeatedly denied the historicity of the Holocaust as has Iran, which leads a reasonable observer to conclude that fanaticism drives Iran’s foreign policy.
To complicate matters, a report in Haaretz this week reveals that there have been secret meetings between Israeli and Finnish officials on the issue of the International Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty conference scheduled for Helsinki in December, and that the Obama Administration wants to discuss a Middle East nuclear-free-zone at that gathering. Should this conference result in a demand to inspect Israel’s nuclear facilities, the ambiguity that is at the core of the Jewish state’s deterrent strategy would be destroyed. I would hope that the United States would push for an indefinite delay of this conference until such time as the Middle East stabilizes following the Arab spring.
All this being said, for Israel’s Interior Minister Eli Yishai to take the step as he did last week to bar the poet Gunter Grass from physically entering Israel is an overreaction, and is unbecoming of the only democracy in the Middle East that values free speech. Alan Dershowitz, who does not make a habit of criticizing Israeli officials, made an exception with Minister Yishai when the Harvard professor wrote that Yishai’s decision was “both foolish and self-defeating,” and that the “ridiculous poem doesn’t pose any security threat to Israel that would justify his physical exclusion from the country.”
In truth, there are two main security threats to Israel. The first is Israel’s actual outside enemies who threaten harm, and the second is the anti-democratic trend promoted regularly by the current Israeli government. If left unchallenged, this official intolerance and demagoguery will chip away at Israel’s own democratic traditions and leave it just like the other oppressive nations in the region.