18 April 2004

The Courage of the Clerk

By Gwynne Dyer

I am the clerk, the technician, the mechanic, the driver.

They said, Do this, do that, don’t look left or right.

Don’t read the text. Don’t look at the whole machine.

You are only responsible for this one bolt, this one rubber stamp.

Mordechai Vanunu wrote that about halfway through his eighteen-year jail sentence (twelve years of it in solitary confinement), which was imposed because he told the world about Israel’s nuclear weapons. On Wednesday he comes out of jail at last, having refused early parole in return for a promise never to speak about his kidnapping, his prison ordeal, or Israeli nuclear weapons. “He is the most stubborn, disciplined and tough person I have ever met,” said his former lawyer Avigdor Feldman. But his ordeal is not over.

In January, knowing that Mr Vanunu was scheduled for release on 21 April, Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon called a meeting attended by the defence minister, Shaul Mofaz, the attorney-general, Menachem Mazuz, Yehiel Horev, who has final responsibility for both Shin Beth and Mossad, the country’s internal and external intelligence services, and a representative of the Israeli Atomic Energy Committee. They decided that Vanunu will only be a little bit free.

He cannot leave the country, nor can he even leave the town he settles in without permission — and he is not allowed to approach any port, airport or border crossing. He cannot have a passport, and he is banned from contact with foreigners or with foreign embassies in Israel. He is not allowed to tell anybody, including Israelis, anything about his work at Israel’s nuclear weapons production facility at Dimona (even though it is now nineteen years since he worked there), or about the circumstances surrounding his kidnapping by the Israeli secret services.

“They say I have additional secrets,” said Vanunu, who is appealing the restrictions, “but that is a lie, an excuse, a cover-up. All that was known to me has been published. Anything I can say will be a repetition.” And a senior Israeli security official more or less confirmed that to the Independent newspaper in Britain, admitting that “He may have no new secrets, but it is sufficient that he will mount a campaign. People around the world will use him as a banner. There is no reason for us to allow this kind of provocation when we can stop it.”

No reason except that Israel used to be a country under the rule of law, where a citizen who had discharged his prison sentence, justifiable or not, was once again a free person. If he opens his mouth and you think he has spilled new secrets, take him to court and prove it. And by the way, what right have you to forbid an Israeli citizen to leave the country?

Mordechai Vanunu was ‘the clerk, the technician, the mechanic’ who got mixed up in nuclear weapons. He was one of eight children of a poor family of orthodox Jews who immigrated from Morocco to Israel in 1961, and after doing his army service he got a job as a technician at the Dimona nuclear plant in the Negev desert, where Israel manufactures its nuclear weapons. After working quietly away in a relatively low-level job for nine years, he was laid off in 1985, probably because his friendly contacts with Palestinians and his links with a group called the Movement for the Advancement of Peace had alarmed Shin Beth.

He travelled across Asia and ended up in Sydney, Australia, where he converted to Christianity. He was already much troubled about his role in helping to make nuclear weapons, and a journalist he met in Sydney put him in contact with the Sunday Times in London. He told reporter Peter Hounam the whole story, flew to London to meet nuclear scientists there for further debriefings — and then, catastrophically, got frustrated by delays in publication at the Sunday Times and dropped some pictures off at the Daily Mirror as well.

He did not know that the Mirror’s publisher, Robert Maxwell, was a dedicated Zionist with close links to the Israeli government. Maxwell sent Vanunu’s pictures of the Dimona plant to the Israeli embassy, which immediately put a female agent called ‘Cindy’, posing as an American tourist, in Vanunu’s way. ‘Cindy’ persuaded him to fly to Rome with her on holiday, and Israeli agents at Fiumicino International Airport kidnapped him (perhaps with the Italian government’s cooperation) and flew him back to Israel even as the Sunday Times was finally publishing his story.

Eighteen years later, he’s coming out of jail. The two hundred fission-based nuclear weapons that Israel was estimated to possess then may have doubled or tripled in number in the meantime. The thermonuclear weapons that it had just developed then are probably now quite commonplace. And the thousand-mile-range (1,600-km-range) Jericho missiles that can deliver those weapons as far as Rome and Tehran will soon be supplemented by submarine-launched cruise missiles that will let Israel strike almost anywhere.

Everybody who matters knows this, including all the Arab governments, but Israel maintains a policy of ‘nuclear ambiguity’ in the hope that if it doesn’t openly admit to having nukes, Arab governments will be under less public pressure to match that accomplishment. It was the challenge to that ambiguity, not the betrayal of nuclear secrets, that Mr Vanunu was really sent to jail for eighteen years ago, and that is why they are still trying to shut him up now. They are unlikely to succeed.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 6. (“In January…free”;and “No reason…country”)