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Rumors of German-Israeli nuclear missile deal pique debate on 'special relationship'

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“Of course the German government never asked what would happen to these subs,” says Karsten Voigt, a former Social Democrat member of parliament and government coordinator for US-German relations. “The worst thing would have been if the Israelis had said the truth – any German government would have had a hard time defending itself.” 

There is no lack of critics. Günter Grass, a Nobel-Prize-winning German author, found himself at the center of an international scandal when he published a poem a few weeks ago in which he defended Iran against the threat of a military strike by Israel and asked the – rhetorical – question of whether Germany should be part of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

“I’m speaking out,” Mr. Grass said in his poem, “because my country, scene of crimes beyond comparison, under the pretext of penitence is sending Israel another submarine, which can direct all-destructive warheads toward an area in which not a single nuclear bomb as been proven to exist.” 

The poem drew condemnation around the globe, notably in Israel, where Grass was declared persona non-grata. In Germany it rekindled the debate on whether criticism of Israel was equivalent to anti-Semitism or a liberation from the decades of guilt. 

A majority of the political class will side with the official government line, albeit with less emphasis than the chancellor. On a state visit to Israel last week, President Joachim Gauck spoke about the relationship, although his declaration of commitment wasn't quite as strong. “Advocacy for Israel's security and right to exist is a defining part of German policy,” he said. 

But a poll conducted by the respected Forsa institute just before the visit indicated rising German unease with Israeli government policy. According to the poll, 60 percent of Germans believe that their country has no special responsibility toward Israel because of the Holocaust; only 33 percent said it does. On top of that, the poll indicated that 70 percent of Germans believe Israel pursues its interests without consideration for other peoples. In a similar poll three years ago, only 59 percent were of that opinion. Similarly, the percentage of those who perceive Israel as "aggressive" has risen from 49 to 59 percent. 

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