Israel’s Nukes

As a matter of principle, Israel should own up to its nuclear weapons program.


When former Israeli technician Mordechai Vanunu stepped out
of jail after 18 years’ imprisonment, he was met as a hero
by those who want the Israeli government to fess up to — and dismantle — its nuclear program, and as a traitor by those who
condemned his 1986 revelations to the London Sunday
Times
about Israel’s clandestine program. Some of
the people angered by Vanunu’s release shouted that: “They should
have put you up a chimney like the Jews at

Auschwitz!

When the Sunday Times broke its story in 1986, it was widely
known that Israel had a
clandestine
nuclear program
established in the 1950s under the country’s
first prime minister David Ben Gurion. Israel then as now
maintained a policy of “ambiguity” — a nuclear “don’t ask,
don’t tell” approach — wherein it neither acknowledged nor
denied the existence of the program. Vanunu supplied information
revealing that the program was much larger and more advanced than
previously thought: Israel had produced

100-200 nuclear
weapons
, not the 10-20 it was suspected of having.

In Israel, where the nuclear program has sacrosanct status
and is viewed as a vital “insurance policy” for
defense against hostile neighbors seeking the nation’s destruction, Vanunu’s revelations were judged treasonous.
Under the terms of Vanunu’s release, he is prohibited from
leaving the country, discussing the nuclear program, and
needs the state’s permission before talking to foreigners.

Vanunu is a controversial figure in Israel for many
reasons. He has questioned Israel’s right to exist and
is a crusader for Palestinian statehood. He wants the
Israeli nuclear program dismantled — that’s why he exposed it to begin with. Speaking to reporters outside
the jail, Vanunu insisted that, contrary to statements by
the Israeli government, he has


no more secrets
to reveal:

“For all those calling me a traitor I am proud of what I did
and I’m glad I succeeded in what I did. I don’t have any
secrets…All the talk about more secrets is bullshit and blah
blah. My case is dead…I will continue to speak against all
kinds of nuclear weapons. I come to end the silence.”

His conversion to Christianity and insistence that he is not
Jewish — he comes from a religious family of Sephardic
Jews — has been sneered at, and he is convinced that he is
a victim of religious, not just political, persecution. As

Vanunu

went on to say:

“If I were Jewish this would never happen … I have undergone
cruel and barbaric treatment by the Mossad and Shabak (Shin
Bet)[the Israeli security forces].”

The Israeli government maintains that his lack of remorse
and his determination to speak out following his release
justify restrictions on his freedom of movement and speech.


Foreign Ministry
spokesman Jonathan Peled told the BBC:

“He is a man sentenced to prison for treason and he has
repeatedly said he will go back to his old behavior…
[Israel] has to take precautions to prevent that from
happening.”

The likelihood that Vanunu, after spending almost two decades
in prison — most of it in solitary confinement — has any new state secrets to reveal is rather slim. Vendetta and a desire to prevent open dialogue about Israel’s nuclear program more likely explain
the government’s restrictions.

The fact that an avowed lefty was able to work in — and sneak
photos out of — the state’s most secretly guarded project was
an embarrassment for the security forces. The conservative

Jerusalem Post editorialized:

“In 1981, Vanunu, with Arab activists, protested against
Israel’s destruction of Iraq’s Osirak reactor. Vanunu, then,
wasn’t against the bomb outright. He apparently approved of
it in Arab hands.

Indeed, for years prior to Vanunu’s arrest and trial, he was
a pro-Arab extremist to the point that Hebrew University
students and staff, who knew he was employed at the Dimona
reactor, wondered how such a person could be allowed near
the nation’s most secure facility. This was the first, most
easily preventable, and most egregious error of the entire
affair.”

The Mossad made up for the oversight in a maneuver worthy of a
spy novel: Vanunu was lured by a female agent from London to
Rome with promises of sex, drugged, and snatched off to
Israel for a secret trial.

Israel has not signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation
of Nuclear Weapons and has refused to subject itself to
international inspections. Libya’s recent decision to
destroy its WMD programs and Iran’s cooperation with nuclear
inspectors have not prompted a serious reconsideration of
Israeli nuclear policy. As the

Jerusalem Report

points out:

“Israeli officials warn against getting ahead of the game.
Indeed, they see the Libyan and Iranian moves as a mixed
blessing. In the best-case scenario, they say, Libya and
Iran dismantle their WMD programs and reduce the threat of a
regional nuclear cataclysm. But in the worst case, the two
rogue states get international sanctions lifted on a false
promise of disarmament, continue to develop mega-weapons in
secret and put pressure on Israel to open up its own
undeclared programs to inspection. For now, the officials
say, skepticism over both Libya and Iran is warranted; the
burden of proof is still very much on them.

More importantly, neither the U.S. nor the E.U. is pressing
Israel into parallel moves. On the contrary, calls from Arab
countries and left-wing politicians for Israel to declare
and dismantle its reported WMD programs have led both the
U.S. and British governments to declare that, when it comes
to WMD, Israel is a unique case.”

Israel has — like all countries, only more so — legitimate security
concerns, but its current nuclear policy only perpetuates

the arms race in the region and fuels distrust. U.S. efforts
to stem the spread of WMD in the Middle East are undercut
because of its refusal to criticize the Israeli program,
prompting accusations of its “double-standard” in the
region.

Israel prides itself on being the Middle East’s only
democracy, but the politically motivated restrictions placed
on Vanunu reveal some of its flaws. In its attempts to limit
legitimate debate on the wisdom of Israel’s nuclear
program, the government is not only doing a disservice to
Israeli democracy; it counters the very vision of the
nuclear-free Middle East that it publicly propounds.

Those Israelis who disagree with some or all Vivandu’s
political views — and there are many — should
nevertheless be troubled by their government’s handling of
the case. As


Maariv International
argues:

“Considering the spin and attempts to implant fear, it
should be remembered: expressing an opinion, even one about
nuclear weapons, is not a crime. Attorney General Meni Mazuz
said that explicitly at the Knesset Foreign Affairs and
Security Committee meeting. Security experts, Knesset
members, professors and ordinary citizens have already
written and spoken about every aspect of the subject. If
Vaanunu reveals any previously unknown information about
what is done in Institute 2 from the “Golda Balcony” [the
Dimona reactor] and down, he will become a crime suspect and
it might be necessary to bring him to trial. However, a
principled discussion of the country’s nuclear options is
permitted in a democratic country.”