Muzzling a Whistle-Blower
Mordechai Vanunu is scheduled to be freed soon. But will he be?
By Dan Ephron
Sometime last year Mordechai Vanunu received a visitor at his prison cell in the southern Israeli town of Ashkelon. The guest was an Israeli security official, and the proposal he was carrying would have made Vanunu-a former nuclear technician jailed since 1986 for revealing Israel's atomic secrets-a free man. But not entirely. Vanunu, who had another year left on his sentence, would have had to sign a pledge to never again talk publicly about Israeli nukes or about Dimona, the nuclear plant where he worked and where Israel is said to have built at least 200 atomic bombs. Though Vanunu had suffered from dreadful prison conditions since his arrest the offer held little appeal. "He said he won't do it," recounts Mary Eoloff, a retired American schoolteacher who, along with her husband, legally adopted Vanunu a few years ago, in a failed attempt to win him U.S. citizenship. "He believes in freedom of speech."
Vanunu, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee, is due to exit Ashkelon prison on April 21 and wants to emigrate immediately to the United States. But in the waning months of his 18-year sentence, Israeli officials are quietly considering meting out more punishment for the whistle-blower. According to a report confirmed by security sources, some people in the defense establishment want to invoke an arcane regulation to prevent Vanunu from ever leaving the country. Other government officials believe Vanunu's imprisonment should be extended by "administrative detention"-a measure usually reserved for Palestinians suspected of terrorism. Both groups warn that Vanunu, once able to travel and speak freely, will become a powerful agitator for the dismantling of Israel's nuclear weapons. "Having Vanunu running around the U.S. and Europe talking about the bombs Israel has, could be a serious irritant from the Israeli government's perspective," says Avner Cohen, an academic who writes about Israel's nuclear policy.
Especially these days. In the last year alone, two of Israel's most volatile foes-Iraq and Libya-have been defanged. And now Iran is under pressure to come clean about its nuclear program. Syria could be next. But if disarming the entire Middle East is the goal, Arabs and Muslims keep asking, what about Israel? The answer has as much to do with politics as it does with strategic considerations. Certainly, the United States has less angst about a nuclear-armed Israel than it does about an Arab state. But no less significant is the way Israel has leveraged a quiet don't-ask-don't-tell arrangement with the United States: as long as the Jewish state doesn't admit having nukes, Washington won't press to eliminate them.
That's why Vanunu's revelation to The Times of London in 1986 so infuriated Israeli policymakers. The midlevel technician gave the newspaper not only a tell-all interview about Dimona, he provided photographs from inside the plant taken furtively in the final months of his employment. The revelations destroyed Israel's policy of ambiguity. The government initially tried to discredit him, then lured Vanunu from London to Rome in a Mossad honey trap and whisked him off to Tel Aviv for trial. At least six times in recent years, Israel has denied his request for parole. When asked about the possibility of further sanctions against Vanunu, the Justice Ministry said tersely: "Various issues are being weighed in advance of Mordechai Vanunu's scheduled release. Beyond that, we cannot go into detail."
If allowed out, Vanunu wants to live in the United States and teach history. On the way, he hopes to stop in London where supporters are planning a big bash. "He'd like to get married and lead a quiet life at first, and that's smart," says Eoloff, who last visited Vanunu six weeks ago. "If he speaks out, and it won't be right away, it would be against nuclear threats all around the world."
Vanunu, who converted to Christianity before his arrest, is also visited regularly by an Anglican clergyman. The last time he was there, Dean Michael Sellors remarked to Vanunu that his release coincides with the Queen of England's birthday. "He said that in that case, he better get a ticket and greet her himself," Sellors says. Vanunu might be famous enough in Britain to meet the queen. But first, he needs Israel's permission to leave.
© 2003 Newsweek, Inc.