People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 19

May 09, 2004

The Strange Sad Tale Of Mordechai Vanunu  



ON April 22, 2004 one of the most intriguing episodes in international affairs came to one kind of a climax, while at the same time signalling the commencement of yet another phase. On that day, Mordechai Vanunu was released from Ashkelon, or Shikma Prison as it is known today, by the Israeli authorities after serving a sentence of 18 years for treason, the longest incarceration of any prisoner of conscience anywhere in the world. Vanunu’s crime? Having “betrayed” the state of Israel by revealing to the world what is now one the world’s worst kept secrets, that Israel has made and amassed a massive stockpile of nuclear weapons. The story of Mordechai Vanunu, how he came upon the secret, how he leaked it to the world, how the Israelis tried and convicted him could itself be straight out of a Hollywood thriller. But even more intriguing is the geopolitics of the entire Vanunu story, the role of the US and other international powers, and what these reveal not only about their position vis-a-vis Israel and the Middle East, or their much-touted championing of the values of democracy and free speech, but also about their perspective and actions regarding nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction in general.     



Mordechai Vanunu was born in 1958, one among 11 siblings, in a family of orthodox Jews who emigrated from Morocco to Israel in 1963. Like all Israeli youth, he did military service, working in army engineering divisions of the Israei Defence Force (IDF) till his honourable discharge with the rank of sergeant. He found employment as a technician at the nuclear reactor centre in Dimona in southeastern Israel and worked there from 1976 to 1985.  

Vanunu had discovered Israel’s secret plutonium recovery plant, buried 80 feet under the Negev desert near the Dimona nuclear power plant to escape detection, which had been reprocessing spent fuel rods to extract weapons grade plutonium since the 1960s. Vanunu noted the weapons production programme with growing unease. With no specific purpose in mind, Vanunu had meanwhile started taking photographs of the plant and of the clandestine manufacture of nuclear weapons. Vanunu estimated that Israel had a stockpile of (at that time) around 200 warheads including thermo-nuclear weapons or hydrogen bombs.


Vanunu had also been studying at Ben Gurion University and gradually became involved in radical politics, forming a group called “Campus” along with several other Jewish and Arab students. He was also deeply influenced by his Professor, Evron Pollakov, who had been jailed for refusing to serve with the IDF in Lebanon. The Israeli internal security agency, Shin Beth, had noted Vanunu’s growing radicalism, his sympathies with the Palestinian cause and his links with an organisation called the Movement for the Advancement for Peace. 

Made redundant at Dimona in 1985, Vanunu used his savings to travel around the world, to Nepal, Thailand and Australia where he spent considerable time, even converting to Christianity, which alienated him from his parents and most of his siblings. Peace activists and free-lance journalists in Australia encouraged him to tell his story about Dimona and the Israeli nuclear weapons programme but Vanunu was unable to persuade Australian newspapers to publish it. He had better luck in London where the Sunday Times deputed its Insight team led by investigative journalist Peter Hounan to look into the story that Israel, despite its strident denials and those of its closest ally the USA, was building a nuclear arsenal. Vanunu’s luck in London was mixed, however, since he had approached the Daily Mirror first but publisher Robert Maxwell had quietly passed on Vanunu’s photographs of Dimona to the Israeli embassy in London. When Maxwell died at sea in 1991, after many scandals over embezzlement of pension funds, he was given a State funeral in Israel where the then labour prime minister Shimon Peres praised his “services to the [Israeli] State”! At the time the Sunday Times broke the story in 1986 about Dimona and Israeli nuclear weapons, the Mirror even ran a negative story questioning Vanunu’s credentials. But Vanunu himself had meanwhile disappeared.




In classic whodunit style, a woman operative of the Israeli external security agency, Mossad, pretending to be an American tourist called Cindy befriended Vanunu and took him on a trip to Rome. At a flat in Rome supposedly belonging to “Cindy’s” sister, Mossad agents grabbed Vanunu, drugged him and took him back to Israel where he was shown copies of the Sunday Times story, and told to “see what you have done”. Vanunu was not kidnapped from London itself perhaps then British PM Margaret Thatcher was not embarrassed. In Israel, TV cameras showed Vanunu being taken away in a police car, unable to do anything, but sufficiently alert to tell the world what had happened, dramatically pressing against the car window the palm of his hand on which he had scribbled: “Rome ITL 30:9:86 2100 came to Rome by BA504” giving details of the flights by which he had arrived at and departed from Rome.


Mordechai Vanunu was convicted of treason and espionage in a closed-door trial. Of his 18 year sentence, Vanunu served the first eleven and a half years in solitary confinement, a period known to be capable of totally unsettling a person’s mental balance. He was not allowed visitors, other prisoners were kept away from him and even his occasional walks in the jail courtyards were carefully monitored. It was only when a Lebanese prisoner serving sentence for smuggling weapons into the West Bank somehow saw him in prison one day that the outside world even heard of what had become of Mordechai Vanunu.


While a Free Vanunu campaign was being run by anti-nuclear and peace activists and those determined to uphold human rights, very few people had even heard of Vanunu or what he had done outside of this activist circle. In Europe at least some news filtered through, some articles got written. But the silence in the USA was deafening, even in the media for whom the story of Israel’s nuclear weapons was too hot to handle.


A BBC television documentary by its “Correspondents” team broke this pattern and was shown on its worldwide channel. The 50-minute documentary titled “Israel’s secret weapon” had background stories, interviews with Vanunu’s lawyer, documents and even interviews with top Israeli politicians like Peres who refused, on camera, to say anything other than to condemn Vanunu. The BBC was accused of being anti-Israeli and, that trump accusation, of being anti-Semitic, was blacklisted by Israel and threatened with being totally cut off from access to that country if it continued to air the film. To the BBC’s credit, they resisted all the pressures and the film has become an important part of the campaign against nuclear weapons.   


The entire political spectrum of the governing class, from Labour on the left, under whose rule the nuclear weaponisation of Israel had begun, to the Likud on the Right was united in condemning Vanunu, his incarceration and treatment in jail. Shimon Peres had ordered his kidnapping and the closed-door trials. The position of the Israeli State was made explicit by former president Ezer Weisman who told a press conference in London in 1997: “He was a spy who gave away secrets, and the fact that he did so for conviction rather than for money makes no difference. He was a traitor to his country.”


The attitude of the out and out hawk Ariel Sharon is not difficult to imagine.

Israel has imposed draconian restrictions upon Vanunu, ironically imposed under old emergency regulations passed by the British when they governed Israel in 1945. He will have to live and stay only in one city of his choice in Israel, is not allowed to talk to the press, not allowed to leave the country for 6 months subject to further review again after 6 months, not allowed to contact foreigners even on telephone, not allowed within 100 metres of any Embassy, port of entry or nearer than 300 metres from any international boundary, may not be permitted to worship in a church of his choosing and the authorities are yet to decide whether to allow his American adoptive parents to visit him. At the time of writing, Vanunu has somehow contrived to obtain sanctuary in an Anglican church.




Why all this paranoia and anxiety? Mordechai Vanunu surely has no more secrets to tell. But of course by appearing in public, by speaking about what he knows and has been through, by refusing to be cowed down by 18 years of incarceration and inhuman treatment and refusing as he already has to retract his opinion about Israeli nuclear weapons, he can cause huge embarrassment to Israel, to its principal ally and protector, the USA, and act as a powerful catalyst in the world-wide anti-nuclear weapons, anti-imperialist and peace movements.


More than two decades ago, Israel attacked and destroyed an Iraqi nuclear reactor on the grounds that it was secretly used for making nuclear weapons, even while Israel itself was making them. The USA has been carrying out an aggressive policy of nuclear non-proliferation while asserting its own right to make, retain and even threaten to use nuclear weapons, refusing even to declare a policy of “no first use”, refusing to ratify the Test Ban Treaty, refusing to agree to a time-bound programme for elimination of all nuclear weapons from the world, all while tolerating indeed acquiescing in Israel’s nuclear weapons programme.


The US and a few of its equally hypocritical allies unilaterally and illegally invaded Iraq over some non-existent weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The US declared Iran, Libya and North Korea as an “axis of evil” for possessing or trying to acquire nuclear weapons or other WMDs and has managed to pressure Libya into explicitly and publicly giving up its WMD programmes while the Damocles sword hangs over Iran to do so. All this has left Israel as the only nuclear-armed country in the entire Middle East, a regional hegemon supported by globocop USA.


US policy in the Middle East, and particularly vis-à-vis Palestine, stands thoroughly exposed today. Ariel Sharon can literally get away with murder, which he announces in advance, and the US not only looks on but explicitly defends. Palestinians are denied any rights by Israel even to their own lands, homes and lives, in open defiance of countless UN resolutions for supposed flouting of one of which Iraq could be invaded.


The other ostensible reason given by the US and Britain for their invasion of Iraq and their Mid-East policy in general is “to defend democracy”. What kind of justice did Vanunu receive, with a closed-door trial, inadequate defence, and predetermined judgments? What rule of law prevails in Israel or governs its actions anywhere in the world, that it could kidnap Vanunu in Italy and drag him back to Israel? But then, has the US offered any better example? Who has given the US the right to incarcerate people without trial in Guantanamo Bay, to keep them outside the purview of any international law or even US law as the US government itself explicitly pleaded in a US Court?


So why should anyone believe that nuclear weapons and WMDs are not legitimate currency of power? Why should anybody trust the US or take seriously its foreign policy in general or its Mid-East policy in particular as being anything but self-interest and designed to perpetuate its hegemony and that of its pet allies? Does anyone expect the present US policy, so actively supported by Britain and Israel, to really help break the huge wall of distrust that has come up between them and the people of the region and indeed the whole world?


 Neither Israel nor the US wants their utter hypocrisy in such matters to be highlighted, nor such issues to be debated or to come to the fore. Certainly not within their own countries where public opinion is already sharply divided and the chasm getting wider by the day. This is the danger that Mordechai Vanunu poses. If Messers Bush and Blair really want to find nuclear weapons in the Middle East, Mordechai Vanunu can tell them where to look. And he can tell the whole world too. 


And that is why, although Mordechai Vanunu has been released from prison, he is not yet free.