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A Hero to Some Peace Activists, Vanunu Seen As a Traitor at Home

April 21, 2004
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With his face turned away, the white-bearded vendor shuffles haplessly around his Beersheba market stall. Then something in him snaps and, cursing, he shoves the cameraman, who backs off.

The shot that opens the Israeli documentary “Who are you, Mordechai Vanunu?” shows the subject’s elderly father, who changed his name in shame after Vanunu, Israel’s nuclear whistle-blower, was jailed as a traitor 18 years ago.

Vanunu was due to be released Wednesday, but the documentary images bespeak the emotional turmoil gripping the country over a national security imbroglio that is far from resolved.

Hundreds of anti-nuclear activists from all over the world had flocked to Israel, ready to receive the 49-year-old Christian convert when he emerged from behind the sun-bleached walls of Shikma Prison in Ashkelon.

But the hero’s welcome will be short-lived and hands-off.

Under restrictions recommended by the Shin Bet security service, Vanunu is banned from meeting foreigners — let alone realizing his dream of emigrating — for at least a year. His phone and Internet connections will be tapped and his movements monitored to ensure he stays away from border crossings and foreign diplomatic missions, the sort of surveillance usually reserved for suspected spies rather than ex-convicts.

Security officials — who still fume at Vanunu’s 1986 disclosures to a British newspaper about his work at the atomic reactor outside the southern desert town of Dimona — defend the gag measures as a national priority.

“Mordechai Vanunu has revealed state secrets about the Dimona nuclear plant. He still possesses state secrets, including some which he has not revealed,” the Defense Ministry said in a statement. “Disclosure of these state secrets could seriously damage the security of the state.”

Vanunu insists he has nothing to add to his Sunday Times interview, which led independent analysts to conclude that Dimona had produced at least 200 nuclear weapons, making Israel a military superpower.

Yet the Moroccan-born former atomic technician has voiced no remorse at violating the pact of secrecy he signed with the Israeli security establishment before taking the Dimona job. Indeed, he has vowed to continue campaigning against the “strategic ambiguity” Israel maintains around its nonconventional capabilities.

Now it appears that Vanunu may have a higher target — Israel’s very right to exist.

“There is no need for a Jewish state,” he told Shin Bet officials in a jailhouse interview leaked to the press Monday. “There should be a Palestinian state. Whoever wants to be Jewish can live anywhere.”

Such remarks are a drastic departure for the Vanunu family, which in 1963 left Marrakesh for Israel, filled with Zionist fervor that was not dampened when the Jewish Agency dumped the Vanunus in a Beersheba transit camp.

The second of 10 children, the young Mordechai Vanunu studied hard and served as a sergeant in the Combat Engineering Corps, fighting in the Yom Kippur War.

In 1976, Vanunu applied to work at Dimona and was brought in as a junior reactor technician. According to friends, he attributed his acceptance to the fact that at the time, he was politically hawkish, at one point even linked to the far-right group Kach.

But things changed when Vanunu enrolled in the philosophy program of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in nearby Beersheba. He abandoned Jewish observance and became a vegan.

Slender and intense, he often preferred the company of Arab students and formed a left-wing group that demonstrated on campus with calls for a Palestinian state to be founded alongside Israel — virtually heresy in the early 1980s.

Meanwhile, Vanunu worked nights at Dimona, earning citations for his dedication. But at some point, he decided to smuggle in a camera and quietly snap off two rolls of film. The ease with which this was managed in a high-security facility, especially given Vanunu’s unabashed student activism, has prompted some to speculate that he unwittingly was being groomed to spill nuclear secrets and thus boost Israel’s deterrence even further.

Experts dismiss such conspiracy theories as atypical of a security establishment notorious for logistical oversights.

“Those in charge of keeping Dimona under wraps simply messed up, and now everyone has a serious beef with Vanunu for reminding the world of that,” said Yossi Melman, senior security correspondent for Israel’s daily Ha’aretz.

Vanunu eventually was included in 1985 layoffs from Dimona, and he spent his severance pay traveling the world. The reactor photographs stayed in his backpack as he passed through Russia and Asia, finally reaching Australia as his budget neared its end.

He found not just room and board at a Sydney church, but something else: the Anglican faith. After converting, Vanunu regularly took part in group discussions about world peace and let slip that he had once worked at Israel’s main atomic reactor.

Overhearing this, a Colombian who sometimes worked as a journalist set about seeking a paper to run Vanunu’s story. Word reached the Sunday Times, which flew Vanunu to London to be grilled by nuclear experts.

He also was promised $100,000 for any syndication or book deal that would emerge from the interview.

But the 32-year-old drifter’s loneliness got the better of him. As the Sunday Times article was being readied for publication, the Mossad dispatched American-born agent Cheryl Hanin to befriend Vanunu at a Piccadilly cafe.

A former Mossad head said the spy agency had considered killing Vanunu, but decided just to abduct him. With the Mossad leery of conducting operations on British soil, Hanin, a comely blonde posing as a tourist by the name of Cindy, offered Vanunu a romantic weekend in Italy. The honey trap was set.

When the two landed in Rome, Vanunu was set upon by three burly Mossad men and hustled back to Israel to stand trial.

The circumstances of Vanunu’s arrest, and the harsh conditions of his incarceration — 12 years of which were spent in solitary confinement — have stoked the sympathy of thousands of foreign supporters who see him as a martyred pacifist, and he has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize several times. His anti-Zionist views helped attract other pools of support.

A retired American couple even legally adopted Vanunu in a failed bid to win him U.S. citizenship.

In Israel, Vanunu largely is reviled as a traitor. But his case set off deeper tremors in a country where assumptions about Sephardi Jews’ hawkish tendencies still are prevalent.

“Mordechai shocked the country not just because he was traitor, but because he was the first Mizrachi traitor,” said Vanunu’s childhood friend Yehuda Elush. “Everyone before him was an Ashkenazi.”

Legal debate is swirling over the idea of applying further sanctions to a man who already has served out his prison sentence.

“The restrictions heaped on the ‘atomic convict’ would not seem out of place in Stalin’s Soviet Union,” Israeli military expert Reuven Pedatzur said. The Association of Civil Rights in Israel has asked the government to reconsider, and Vanunu’s lawyer said he likely will challenge the measures in court.

But other security veterans insist Vanunu poses a danger to an Israel still formally at war with 16 of its Middle East neighbors — one of which, Iran, is actively pursuing nuclear weapons.

Any new details he may have about Dimona could embarrass Israel and possibly fray a tacit understanding with the United States that dates back to the Nixon administration: Washington won’t pressure Jerusalem into signing the United Nations Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and submitting to international inspections, provided Israel doesn’t carry out nuclear tests.

Israeli elder statesman Shimon Peres, who brokered the construction of the Dimona reactor with French help in the 1950s and devised Israel’s ambiguity policy during 1964 talks with President Kennedy, expressed satisfaction with the restrictions imposed on Vanunu.

“Vanunu violated accepted norms and betrayed his country,” Peres told Israel’s Army Radio on Tuesday. “This is justice.”

If, as Vanunu claims, he has nothing more to divulge about Dimona, he still might invent “revelations” to satisfy the anti-nuclear and anti-Israel lobbies — and perhaps secure lucrative interviews and lecture tours.

Others worry that Vanunu will reveal the names of his former co-workers at the plant.

Also troubling are the ample accounts of Vanunu’s mental instability. His correspondents recall jailhouse letters filled with fiery denunciations against Israel and paranoid theories.

Yet for this very reason, some Israeli observers argue that Vanunu should be allowed to leave the country — and good riddance.

“I think it is a mistake to gag him,” said David Kimche, a 30-year Mossad veteran and retired director general of the Foreign Ministry. “It only bolsters Vanunu’s supposed credibility and, in turn, pretty much anything he may choose to concoct about Israel.”

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