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Any Israeli who bought the 16 February edition of the daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth would have believed that a truly wicked man was about to be released from Ashkelon prison. Each time a suicide bomber blew himself up, the prisoner would celebrate. Worse still, said the paper, the inmate–once a keeper of Israel’s nuclear secrets–wants to endanger his country further after his release. "He told me," a former prisoner was quoted as saying, "that he has additional material and that he will reveal secrets…"
Should it be a surprise, then, that the very same prisoner, supposedly celebrating the slaughter of innocents while preparing to betray his country yet again, holds a clutch of awards from European peace groups, the Sean McBride Peace prize and an honorary doctorate from the University of Tromso? In 2000, the Church of Humanism told him: "You are honest, courageous and morally highly motivated, and may the great sacrifice you have made serve to protect not only those living in Israel but all the peoples of the Middle East and perhaps the world." The same man has also been put forward as a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Mordechai Vanunu, it seems, can only be loved or loathed. Indifference to the former Israeli nuclear technician is impossible. For he is the man who, in 1986, took evidence to The Sunday Times of the full story behind Israel’s secret nuclear weapons plant at Dimona in the Negev desert, complete with the total number of advanced fission bombs there–200 at the time–and, even more disturbingly, complete with pictures. He said that Israel had mastered a thermonuclear design and appeared to have a number of thermonuclear bombs ready for use. He was subsequently lured by a girl from London to Rome and then kidnapped, drugged and freighted back to Israel by Israeli secret policemen. But in just six weeks’ time, after 18 years of imprisonment–12 of them in solitary confinement–the world’s most famous whistleblower is scheduled for release. Israel–not to mention the world–is holding its breath.
Will he divulge further secrets of Dimona–always supposing he has any after 18 years of incarceration–or curse the country of which he is a citizen, albeit a citizen who converted to Christianity before his arrest and who wants to emigrate to the United States? Will he emerge a cowed man, anxious only to apologise for the terrible betrayal he inflicted upon his country? Or will he, as his friends and supporters and his adopted American parents hope, become an apostle of peace, one of the greatest of this generation’s prisoners of conscience, the man who tried to rid the world of the threat of nuclear annihilation?
The Israeli government is still uncertain how to confront Vanunu’s release on 21 April. They are known to be considering–perhaps have already decided upon–"certain supervisory means" and "appropriate measures" to shut Vanunu up. In the second half of January, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon met with Menachem Mazuz, Israel’s attorney general, and the defence minister, Shaul Mofaz, and discussed whether Vanunu should be refused a passport. Vanunu would be free to sunbathe on the beaches of Tel Aviv but could not tour the world advertising Israel’s nuclear power. It’s a sign of how fearful the Israeli administration has become at the prospect of this one man’s release that Sharon also summoned to this conference Yehiel Horev’s so-called "Defence Ministry Security Unit", the country’s internal and external intelligence services–Shin Beth and the equally overestimated Mossad–and a representative of the Israeli Atomic Energy Committee.
Horev, it is now known, wanted to go much further than Sharon. He proposed clapping an administrative detention order on Vanunu–Israel’s usual way of dealing with Palestinians whom they regard as "terrorists"–although the meeting apparently came to the conclusion that this would only enhance Vanunu’s reputation as a martyr for world peace. There’s another way of shutting Vanunu up, of course. He can be publicly freed and then–the moment he starts talking about his work as a nuclear technician–he can be tried again and thrown back into Ashkelon jail–or Shikma prison, as the Israelis call it now.
But the real problem that Vanunu represents is that he will remind the world at a critically important moment in the history of the Middle East that Israel is a nuclear power and that its warheads stand ready to be fired from the Negev desert. He will also remind the world that the Americans, despite battering their way into Iraq to destroy Saddam Hussein’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, continue to give their political, moral and economic support to a country that has secretly amassed a treasure trove of weapons of mass destruction.
How can President Bush remain silent on Israel’s nuclear power when he has not only illegally invaded an Arab state for allegedly harbouring nuclear weapons and condemned Iran for the same ambitions, but also praised–along with Tony Blair’s government–Colonel Gaddafi of Libya for abandoning his nuclear pretensions? If the Arab states are being "defanged"–always supposing they had any real fangs in the first place–why should Israel not be "de-nuclearised"? Why can’t the United States apply the same standards to Israel as it does to the Arabs? Or why, for that matter, can’t Israel apply the same standards to itself that it demands of its Arab enemies?
This is the debate that the Israeli and the American governments wish to stifle. In the United States, where any discussion of the Israeli-American relationship that deviates from the benign is routinely condemned as subversive or "anti-Semitic", discussion of Israel’s nuclear power is not something that Washington will want to hear on the Sunday talk shows. Vanunu, it should be said at once, is well aware of all this, of his own importance–infinitely greater than it was when he was a mere junior technician at Dimona–and of the role that tens of thousands of anti- nuclear campaigners expect him to play in the world. Many times, through friends and through his own brothers, Vanunu has said that he has no new nuclear secrets but has the right to oppose nuclear weapons in Israel or anywhere else. "All I want to do is to go to America, get married and start a new life," he says.
No one can doubt Vanunu’s conviction. Born in 1954 to a religious Jewish family in Morocco, he immigrated to Israel at the age of nine, performed his military service in the mid-Seventies and began work at Dimona in November 1976 while completing a graduate course in philosophy and geography. Perhaps it was during his travels in Thailand, Burma, Nepal and Australia in early 1986 that he decided he had a moral duty to talk about Israel’s nuclear weapons. In the same year, he was baptised at an Anglican church in Sydney. Vanunu had clearly become deeply distressed at Israel’s growing nuclear power when he walked into British newspaper offices in September of 1986 in the hope of telling the world the truth about Dimona. He had dropped by Robert Maxwell’s Daily Mirror at first, handed over his photographs of the nuclear plant and waited for a reply. Unknown to Vanunu, Maxwell sent the pictures round to the Israeli embassy in London to "take a look at them", supposedly to "confirm" whether or not the story was true. It seems likely that Maxwell had motives other than journalistic integrity in this betrayal of Vanunu. After his death at sea in 1991, Maxwell, who had stolen millions in pensioners’ funds, was given a state funeral in Israel at which Shimon Peres praised his "services" to the state.
Maxwell’s Daily Mirror ran a "spoiler" story on 28 September, belittling Vanunu and carrying the headline "The Strange Case of Israel and the Nuclear Con Man." The Sunday Times ran with the full story–but Vanunu had already disappeared. Entrapped by a female Mossad agent, he had been lured on to a British Airways flight to Rome and promptly kidnapped. It seems, in fact, that he was seized inside Rome’s Fiumicino Airport. Unable to speak to journalists, he carefully wrote out details of his movements on the palm of his hand and pressed it to the window of his prison truck as it took him to court. "Rome ITL 30:9:86 2100 came to Rome by BA504," he had written. He had been kidnapped at 9pm on 30 September at Rome International. Were the Italian authorities involved in his kidnap? Were they present when he was seized? Perhaps Vanunu can tell us.
He is certainly a man of endurance. Once, during his 12 years of solitary, the prison authorities accidentally freed him for exercise before Arab prisoners in the jail-yard had been returned to their cells. Vanunu immediately walked towards them. One of the Arabs, a Lebanese imprisoned for smuggling arms into the West Bank, was among the first strangers to bring word of Vanunu’s appearance to the outside world. "Vanunu fell into step with us and smiled at us and it was a time before we realised who he was," the freed Lebanese later told The Independent. "He said it was good to be with us and we thought he was a brave man. Then the guards realised their mistake and we were pushed and shoved away from him, back to our cells."
An Israeli journalist visiting another prisoner was amazed to see Vanunu. "For a short moment I saw a bucolic scene," he wrote, "as if taken from some other reality: a serene man, sitting on a bench in a garden and reading Nietzsche in English. I approached him and extended my hand. Pleased to meet you, my name is Ronen,’ I said. I’m Motti,’ the most confined prisoner in the State of Israel replied. Before we could continue to talk, screaming wardens rushed over and grabbed him away."
A former prisoner, Yossi Harush, has provided another glimpse of the imprisoned Vanunu in the years after his solitary confinement ended. "During the day," Harush told Yedioth Ahronoth, "during walks, he meets people and talks with them. I spoke a lot with Vanunu. We were friends. He would come to my cell… He has good conditions. He is treated nicely in prison… He has no restrictions on leaving his cell, but he is restricted within the prison. I myself, as a working prisoner, painted a red line that he is forbidden to cross. I was ordered to do that, and afterwards our relationship cooled off."
Vanunu has been regularly visited by an Anglican clergyman, Dean Michael Sellors. It was Sellors who pointed out to him that his release date coincided with the Queen’s birthday. "He said that in that case, he’d better get a ticket and greet her himself."
Vanunu has also taken heart in the actions of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, a normally conservative organisation, which has stated that, "any sanctions against Mordechai after release would be illegal and immoral." A chatline on the Hebrew website of the Israeli daily Maariv shows that a number of young Israelis regard Vanunu as a hero rather than a threat. Mary Eoloff, a retired American school teacher who, with her husband, adopted Vanunu in the hope that he could be given US citizenship and released, was the first to reveal that when Israeli security men offered to release him a year before the expiry of his 18 years in jail, Vanunu turned them down. "He believes in freedom of speech," she said.
It remains to be seen if Israel will allow Vanunu the free speech he loves. Horev, the defence ministry security official who attended Sharon’s meeting, has spoken of the threat that he believes the nuclear technician represents, which seems to be about ambiguity rather than state secrets. Horev compares this ambiguity to water in a glass. "My job is to ensure that the water doesn’t spill over the glass," he said recently. "Up until the Vanunu affair, the water was at a very low level. The affair caused the water level to rise significantly and caused Israel great damage, but the water still didn’t overflow. If we let certain people act in the matter, the water will spill."
The Israeli journalist Raanan Shaked was a good deal more cynical when he spoke on the subject on Israel’s Channel 10 TV. "Who is the main threat to Israel?" he asked. "Of course, Mordechai Vanunu! He is the big danger. Israeli democracy simply cannot withstand the impact of this one man saying what every child knows: we have nuclear weapons."
On 21 April, when Vanunu is released, we shall find out if the water is going to overflow–and whether Vanunu will cross the red line painted so ominously on the floor at the instruction of the authorities.