Al-Ahram Weekly – 4 March 2004
With less than two months left before Mordechai Vanunu completes his prison term for revealing 18 years ago the existence of a large Israeli arsenal of nuclear weapons, the government launched the first stage of a damage limitation exercise.
The authorities have been preparing public opinion for continuing, in more limited form, the whistleblower’s isolation even after he is freed from Shikma jail in Ashkelon on 21 April. Most of his term has been spent in severe solitary confinement.
Last week, after a meeting of the inner cabinet, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced that after his release Vanunu would be subject to “appropriate supervisory measures” to keep watch over him, though further details were not provided.
It is widely presumed that he will be denied a passport, thereby preventing him from leaving the country, his phones will be bugged and the security services will closely follow his movements, including possibly vetting those he comes into contact with. Such measures are available to the authorities under arcane emergency regulations dating back to British rule in Palestine.
He may also be warned that talking about Israel’s nuclear weapons programme, or even about his abduction in Europe by Mossad agents who brought him back for a secret trial, will lead to new charges.
After taking legal advice Sharon reportedly decided that continuing to hold Vanunu, this time as an administrative detainee — without the need for new charges — or placing him under house arrest were not viable options. Both were unlikely to withstand legal challenge in court and were also certain to provoke unwelcome international protest.
Vanunu, aged 51, has endured some of the harshest punishment ever meted out to an Israeli prisoner since his dramatic revelation in The Sunday Times newspaper in 1986 that Israel had a secret nuclear weapons plant in the Negev that had assembled up to 200 warheads. Vanunu had been employed for nine years as a technician at the plant, which was hidden under a textiles factory in the town of Dimona.
The revelations blew a hole in Israel’s long-standing policy of “nuclear ambiguity” — its refusal to confirm or deny that it has nuclear bombs — and caused huge embarrassment to its superpower ally, America, which had agreed to turn a blind eye to Israel’s development of weapons of mass destruction.
During his 18 years in detention, Vanunu has been held in a cell measuring just two metres by three. For the first two and a half years a light bulb burned continuously in his cell so that he could not tell night from day. When he was briefly allowed out of the cell he was followed by guards videoing him. Basic rights, such as access to newspapers and TV, were also denied. Amnesty International described his ordeal as “cruel, inhuman and degrading”.
The measures were only partially eased after Vanunu’s family became concerned for his mental health and threatened to demand that doctors from abroad be allowed to examine him. Only close relatives are admitted as visitors to this day.
There is little doubt that the psychological warfare waged against Vanunu in prison was designed to break him. Its failure, as Vanunu stands on the verge of freedom, is now causing huge discomfort to senior officials, especially Yehiel Horev, head of security in the Ministry of Defence.
Horev had hoped to muzzle Vanunu in the same manner as he did another whistleblower, Marcus Klingberg, the former deputy director of the Nes Tziona biological weapons factory.
Klingberg, jailed in 1983 for passing secrets to the Soviet Union, was freed early in a deal in which he agreed to be watched by a private security firm, have a camera installed in his apartment and sign a commitment not to speak about his former work.
Vanunu, in contrast, has remained unrepentant. “The gates and the locks will open,” he told his brother Meir Vanunu on hearing that he would be freed.
“They did not succeed in breaking me all these years. They did not succeed in driving me insane.”
Horev has reportedly been pondering what to do about Vanunu’s release for the past three years. He has sent a string of officials to try to negotiate with Vanunu but their approaches have all been rebuffed.
In desperation, Horev has recently been orchestrating a campaign in the Israeli media to discredit Vanunu. There have been frequent unsourced reports of comments allegedly made by Vanunu that will be unpopular with the Israeli public, such as “I don’t care if Israel disappears tomorrow.”
Prominent commentator Dan Margalit even suggested that Vanunu be assassinated.
In addition, improbable scenarios have been promoted by officials. Haim Ben Ami, the Shin Bet chief at the time of Vanunu’s capture, told Israeli TV last week that Vanunu might be kidnapped by Hizbullah and forced to tell them everything he knew.
Knesset member Yossi Katz, along with several others, also questioned Vanunu’s mental stability suggesting that he might fabricate information about Israel’s nuclear programme. Shabtai Shavit, a former head of Mossad, added in similar vein: “Who will guarantee that he will only speak the truth? What is to stop him imagining things?”
How Vanunu’s fantasy world could damage either state security or Israel’s policy of nuclear ambiguity was not clarified.
Nevertheless, Vanunu has said through his family that he has no more secrets to reveal. This was confirmed by Peter Hounam, the Sunday Times journalist who originally interviewed him, to the Israeli daily Ha’aretz newspaper: “We gathered from Vanunu every scrap of technical information about Dimona that he could remember.”
Nonetheless, several Israeli newspapers suggested that Vanunu could still divulge two new pieces of information: the security arrangements at the Dimona plant and the names of people he worked with.
In fact Vanunu refused to provide this information to The Sunday Times, saying he did not want to endanger his former colleagues. It seems improbable that security arrangements at the plant have not been overhauled in the 18 years since Vanunu’s capture.
A different reason for Israel’s continuing harassment of Vanunu was suggested by Hounam: “I think that some people are afraid that Israel might be mortified if Vanunu said how he was kidnapped.”
Vanunu was lured by a Mossad agent named Cindy to Rome where he was drugged, tied up and smuggled on to a ship bound for Israel.
Doubtless, the details of Vanunu’s abduction may cause some embarrassment. But a more pressing fear among security officials is the fact that Vanunu’s release and his new visibility will attract unwelcome media attention to the rarely discussed issue of Israel’s weapons of mass destruction programme.
“Having Vanunu running around the US and Europe talking about the bombs Israel has could be a serious irritant from the Israeli government’s perspective,” said Avner Cohen, an American scholar and author of Israel and the Bomb. It will be discomfiting for Washington too, especially at a time when the Americans are strong-arming recalcitrant Arab states on the pretext that they want to eliminate weapons of mass destruction from the Middle East. Neither Israel nor the US wants Tel Aviv’s role in promoting a regional nuclear arms race highlighted.
The Jerusalem Post sensed the danger too. “This time [Israel’s] nuclear capabilities will be maliciously equated with those of rogue states like North Korea and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.”
There is also the fear that Vanunu, a man who has resolutely stood by his principles during two decades of incarceration, may become the focal point for an anti-nuclear weapons campaign in Israel — and abroad if he is allowed to leave.