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Behind the Headlines Possible Weapons Scandals Put Israeli Leaders Under the Gun

Israel’s unexpected announcement Sunday that it is indeed holding atom-suspect Mordechai Vanunu in custody and that he is to face trial may have come just in time to prevent a dangerous deterioration in relations between London and Jerusalem.

There can be little doubt that the timing of the Cabinet Secretary’s statement — Israel’s first official word on this six-week-old saga — was linked to the growing wave of media speculation in Britain that Vanunu, the former Dimona nuclear reactor technician, was kidnapped from British soil by Israeli agents.

Worse still, the British press last weekend was suggesting that Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had actually been apprised ahead of time, by then-Premier Shimon Peres, of Israel’s intention to abduct Vanunu.

Vanunu, an extreme left-winger who left Israel for Australia last year, sold what purported to be detailed plans of a nuclear-bomb-manufacturing facility at Dimona to the Sunday Times of London. He presumably will be charged with treason in what is likely to be a closed-door trial.

ABDUCTION FROM BRITAIN DENIED

The Israeli statement Sunday took pains to insist that Vanunu had not been snatched from British soil — and therefore no conversation about such an abduction had taken place between Thatcher and Peres.

According to reports from London at the beginning of this week, the government there is making a determined effort to make do with this terse Israeli position — and to have the British media make do with it, too.

Plainly, had Israel continued to stay silent, the credibility of one of its major friends on the world stage, Thatcher, would have been seriously jeopardized as the story continued to burgeon on Fleet Street. The British Premier could have been damagingly embarrassed.

In addition, Israel’s top policymakers and their legal advisers may have been prompted to act now and release a public statement for fear of being forced to by the High Court of Justice.

But beyond these tactical and legal considerations, Premier Yitzhak Shamir, Foreign Minister Peres and Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin may well have been moved by a more fundamental examination of Israel’s condition at this most extremely delicate juncture in its various foreign relationships — and especially relationships connected with covert activities.

They may have decided to clean up, as best they could, the messy aftermath of the Vanunu affair before bracing themselves to face possibly heavy fallout from the arms-to-Iran affair.

OMINOUS BUILD UP OF CRITICISM

The Israeli policymakers are keenly aware this week of the still ominous build-up of questioning and criticism within the American political community over insistent reports that the U.S. and Iran are engaged in longtime negotiations and tradeoffs involving arms for hostages — and that Israel is playing the role of secret middleman, and supplier of the arms to the Khomeini regime.

At the moment, criticism and opposition from at home and abroad are focused at the Reagan Administration. Critics charge that dealing with Iran over hostages’ lives undermines the very essence of America’s purported policies on terrorism.

But Israel, which according to some U.S. media reports initiated the negotiation, is bound to take a great deal of flak itself if this affair continues to gather momentum.

Politicians and pundits are bound to point out that Israel is always stridently advocating an arms boycott of any state abetting terror — and yet here is evidence that the same Israel is actively participating in an ongoing arms-supply relationship with the quintessential terrorist state…

Indeed, Israel has called forcefully on France to abandon plans to sell arms to Syria, because of Syria’s close involvement in terrorism as unmasked in the Hindawi trial in London. European Community Foreign Ministers were due to discuss their relationships with Syria at a meeting in London Monday — and Israel’s position is one they would naturally hear out, if not necessarily adopt.

But that position must inevitably be weakened by the steady stream of reports that Israel is itself, on behalf the U.S., selling weapons to Iran.

OTHER DAMAGING EPISODES

Compounding Israel’s discomfort is a string of other damaging intelligence-related episodes:

The Pollard affair, involving U.S. Naval analyst Jonathan Jay Pollard, who allegedly passed on American secret assessments to the Israelis, hit the headlines just one year ago — and the scars it left are still unhealed.

The Shin Bet affair, involving the cover-up of an illegal killing of two Palestinian terrorists, is not yet concluded. Police investigators are wrestling with the conflicting accounts of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and then-Shin Bet head Avraham Shalom regarding who authorized the killings and the cover-up.

The security aspects of the Vanunu affair must surely disturb the Israeli intelligence community and its political masters. According to foreign reports, one senior Shin Bet official already has been fired in the wake of what appears to have been a major security lapse.

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