Knesset Breaks Taboo on Israeli Nukes
Release of Trial Transcripts Sparks Debate, But Hard Line Continues

Mordechai Vanunu, the imprisoned whistle-blower, has scored a victory with the release of secret trial transcripts that shattered the nuclear weapons taboo in Israel's media and in the country's highest legislative body. But, despite the outcry, the government refused to acknowledge its weapons of mass destruction and the anti-nuclear activist remained behind bars with little prospect of early release.

The dizzying events of the late fall and winter began with the Barak government's release on November 24 of partial transcripts of the 1987-88 closed trial in which Vanunu was convicted of espionage and treason for giving information and photographs dealing with Israel's nuclear weapons reactor at Dimona, where he had worked as a technician. The 1,200-page transcript had been censored to portray Vanunu in the least favorable light, but the strategy backfired.

The saga ended on February 2, when a Palestinian member of the Knesset won the right to raise the nuclear weapons question for the first time in public in Israel's parliament. While television cameras rolled and reporters took notes, Issan Makhoul spelled out chapter and verse on the nuclear weapons program first revealed by Vanunu 13 years ago, a storm of shouts drowned his words and he was gaveled into silence half-way through his speech. A government spokesman, flushed with anger, accused Mahkuol of "aiding the enemy." While reiterating Israel's official line that the nation would not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East, Minister Chaim Ramon added, significantly, that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, while good for others, does not meet Israel's security needs.

Despite the stone-walling by the cabinet and Knesset members, the Israeli and international media jumped on the 10-week running story on Israel's nuclear arsenal , the decades-old government cover-up, and Vanunu's role in bringing the situation to public light in 1986.

In a story splashed across 11 pages of Yediot Ahronot, Isreal's leading daily newspaper, Vanunu emerged from the transcript as a sincere idealist who wanted his fellow-citizens to know the truth about the secret nuclear weapons program and take policy out of the hands of a small clique of insiders. He was quoted as saying Shimon Peres, prime minister at the time, should not be permitted to continue lying to President Reagan about Israel's growing nuclear weapons stockpile.

"It makes my blood boil, "commented Peres, now a minor cabinet officer, who in 1986 had ordered Vanunu's kidnapping and return to Israel for punishment as an example to other potential leakers. Peres said all governments are entitled to national security secrets.

For days the transcript revelations dominated Israel's newspapers and talk shows, prompting criticism of the government's policy of "nuclear ambiguity" and demands that the government acknowledge what the rest of the world already knew. The story also was trumpeted by the international press, even in the United States, where Israeli nuclear weapons and Vanunu are seldom mentioned.

The revelations also prompted Makhoul to take the issue to the Israeli High Court of Justice, challenging the Knesset rule which for decades has banned public debate of the government's nuclear weapons policy. Fearing an adverse legal precedent, the Knesset leadership reluctantly agreed to Makhoul's request but made sure the topic would be kept in bounds. Introducing Makhoul, Speaker Avraham Burg apologized profusely for allowing the forbidden topic to be aired in public.

The ruckus began the moment Makhoul took the podium. Several members of a religious party walked out, followed later by segments of the opposition Likud party and Barak's own Labor Party, which controls the coalition now governing Israel. Meanwhile, hecklers lobbed a barrage of shouts and cat-calls, but not before Makhoul had laid out his case for nuclear open-ness and freedom for Vanunu. The Knesset's four other Palestinian members were ejected for heckling the hecklers.

"It is not the messenger Vanunu who is the problem," Makhoul declared. Rather, it is the policy of all Israeli governments, who have turned this small piece of land into a poisoned and poisoning nuclear waste bin, which could take us all to heaven in a nuclear mushroom cloud."