The Guardian – 25 June 2004
He was the last breakfast companion I was expecting. Separated from me by a rack of toast was Mordechai Vanunu, the man who 18 years ago revealed that Israel had amassed a secret stockpile of nuclear weapons. Breakfast at the St George’s guest house in East Jerusalem is usually a sedate affair, but on this occasion both he and I were skating unintentionally but dangerously close to arrest by Israel’s security services.
Vanunu, who found sanctuary in the grounds of the Anglican cathedral of St George’s when he was released from jail two months ago, is under a gagging order imposed by the Israeli government. He is banned from talking to foreigners, especially foreign journalists, as the former Sunday Times reporter Peter Hounam discovered recently when he was arrested by the Shin Bet secret services and deported. Hounam’s crime was to arrange an interview for the BBC with Vanunu, using an Israeli citizen to pose the questions.
Vanunu is also banned from entering internet chatrooms or approaching foreign embassies; and his phone calls are monitored continuously.
But the severest restriction has been the confiscation of his passport – an infringement of his civil liberties which he is challenging in the courts. Vanunu says that since his release he has been receiving a flood of death threats from Israelis, most of whom revile him as a traitor, and that he wants to leave for the safety of Europe or the US. Israel defends the restrictions on the grounds that even now Vanunu has many secrets to tell that could jeopardise the country’s security. Officials argue it was for this reason he had to endure 12 years of absolute solitary confinement, a further six years of segregation from other prisoners, and now these latest restraints.
But his supporters claim Vanunu revealed to the world all the secrets he knew back in 1986. In any case, they add, it is inconceivable that Israel has not overhauled the security at its nuclear weapons plant in the Negev desert since then.
The true motive for Vanunu’s continued confinement, says his brother Meir, is that Israel is hugely embarrassed by the timing of his release. It highlights Israel’s nuclear arsenal just when the justification for removing Saddam Hussein – his possession of WMD – is shown to have been hollow. If Vanunu were free to talk, he might remind the world that the greatest threat to Middle East peace comes not from Baghdad but from Tel Aviv. And if he were free to leave the country he might inspire a campaign in the west to disarm the only rogue nuclear state in the Middle East.
After my stay at St George’s there is little doubt whose story – Israel’s or Vanunu’s – is more plausible. At breakfast, my wife, an Israeli citizen, chatted to Vanunu as I ate. I can reveal that we heard nothing new about Israel’s nuclear weapons programme.
That evening I sat out on the patio, only to find Vanunu chatting to 20 British peace activists over several gin and tonics. Later, he popped up again at the nearby American Colony Hotel, where he continued drinking with the more hardened members of the party. And all this under the watch of the Shin Bet.
The Guardian – 25 June 2004