- Associated Press - Saturday, April 7, 2012

BERLIN (AP) - German Nobel literature laureate Guenter Grass, under fire for a poem that sharply criticized Israel, said he was singling out the Jewish state’s government, not the country as a whole.

The poem drew sharp rebukes at home and from Israel, including accusations of being anti-Semitic, but Grass received praise from a senior Iranian official Saturday.

In the poem published in European dailies Wednesday, the 84-year-old German author criticized what he described as Western hypocrisy over Israel’s nuclear program and labeled the country a threat to “already fragile world peace” over its belligerent stance on Iran.

In an interview published Saturday by the daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Grass said he sought foremost to single out Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, whose policies “are creating ever more enemies of Israel, and are ever more increasing the country’s isolation.”

“The man who damages Israel the most at the moment is in my opinion Netanyahu _ and I should have included that in the poem,” Grass was quoted as saying.

The left-leaning Grass established himself as a leading literary figure with “The Tin Drum,” published in 1959, and won the Nobel Prize in 1999. He urged fellow Germans to confront their painful Nazi history in the decades after World War II.

However, his image suffered a bruising when he admitted in his 2006 autobiography that at age 17 he was drafted into the Waffen-SS, the combat arm of the Nazis’ paramilitary organization, in the final months of World War II.

In his poem, Grass called for “unhindered and permanent control of Israel’s nuclear capability and Iran’s atomic facilities through an international body.” Also, he specifically criticized Israel’s “claim to the right of a first strike” against Iran.

“What is now an imminent threat is a risk without parallel _ a preventive strike, a first strike against Iran which would have terrible consequences,” Grass told Sueddeutsche Zeitung.

In a sharp-worded response to the poem, Netanyahu rebuked Grass‘ views as “ignorant and reprehensible.”

His “shameful moral equivalence between Israel and Iran, a regime that denies the Holocaust and threatens to annihilate Israel, says little about Israel and much about Mr. Grass,” Netanyahu said in a statement dated Thursday.

“For six decades, Mr. Grass hid the fact that he had been a member of the Waffen SS. So for him to cast the one and only Jewish state as the greatest threat to world peace and to oppose giving Israel the means to defend itself is perhaps not surprising,” he added.

But Iran’s deputy culture minister, Javad Shamaqdari, said Saturday that by criticizing Israel, Grass beautifully carried out his human and historical responsibility, and his revelation of “truth may awaken the silent conscience” of the West.

As a result of the country’s Nazi past, German governments over the past decades have made staunch support for Israel a cornerstone of their foreign policy. But many Germans recently have been irritated by the hawkish tone and the threats emanating from Netanyahu’s government.

But Israel views Iran as a threat to its existence, citing among other things some Iranian calls for its destruction and fears that Iran aims to produce nuclear weapons.

In the poem, Grass didn’t mention those calls, which have been made by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but obliquely referred to the Iranian people being “subjugated by a loudmouth.”

Israel is widely believed to have an arsenal of nuclear weapons, but has never admitted it, pursuing instead an official policy of “ambiguity” to deter potential attackers.


Ali Akbar Dareini in Tehran, Iran, contributed to this report.


Juergen Baetz can be reached on Twitter at https://www.twitter.com/jbaetz



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