Günter Grass, the German nobel laureate, is in the news for publishing a poem yesterday declaring that Israel is a threat to world peace and that it is Israel’s nuclear program that is suspect rather than Iran’s. I will leave it to others, such as Bibi Netanyahu, to rail against Grass’s anti-Semitism, nor will I harp on the irony of a former Waffen-SS member who for decades lied about his past accusing Jews of lying about their true intentions and criticizing Israel’s warlike nature. Rather, I’d like to briefly point out some flaws in Grass’s theory of threat assessment.
Grass believes that Israel’s nuclear program and its alleged claiming of a right to launch a preemptive nuclear strike against Iran makes Israel a threat to world peace. In contrast, he finds no proof that Iran is seeking to develop nuclear capability for anything other than peaceful purposes, IAEA assessments be damned. There are two glaring problems with this analysis. First, it entirely ignores threats directed by Iran toward Israel, acting as if Israel has threatened Iran with military action entirely unprovoked. One can debate whether Khamenei and Ahmadinejad’s blustering about Israel and Zionists is merely empty rhetoric (which is my view) rather than a signal of true intentions to nuke Israel given the chance, but there is no reasonable question that the Iranian leadership consistently threatens Israel and its government (this long list of examples via Jeffrey Goldberg is already three years old). States evaluate threats in a number of different ways; Stephen Walt famously listed strength, proximity, capabilities, and intentions as the four most salient factors, and certainly Iran presents a credible threat to Israel based on proximity and intentions, and to a lesser extent based on strength. Just because Israel might be seen as presenting a credible threat to Iran, it does not automatically follow, as Grass seems to assume, that the reverse is not also true. So while Grass may not see Iran as posing any sort of threat to Israel whatsoever, it must be because his command of international relations theory is more highly evolved than the current state of thinking in the field.
Second, Grass’s allegations of Israeli willingness to launch a first strike and his exhortation of Germany not to sell Israel submarines capable of launching nuclear weapons ignores the fact that Israel has had nuclear weapons since the late 1960s and has fought subsequent wars with Egypt and Lebanon along with suffering Scud missile attacks from Iraq, and yet has in every instance exercised restraint and not used its nuclear arsenal. This is not to laud Israel for any special behavior; no nuclear state has utilized its cache of atomic weapons since the U.S. against the Japanese in ending WWII. It is to point out that Israel should not be treated with heightened suspicion or accused of being a threat to world peace just because it is a nuclear power. Indeed, Israel’s history of not using its nuclear weapons makes it less suspect than Iran, which has no similar track record of responsible nuclear behavior.
Grass may think that Israel is wrong for its treatment of Palestinians, or may not like its current government, or maybe he just has a problem with Jews (let’s not forget that he was, after all, a Nazi). His grasp of threats and nuclear behavior, however, do not back up his polemic.