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Israel sees risk in release:
After jail, nuclear foe may still be gagged.

By Michael Matza
Inquirer Staff Writer
Feb. 09, 2004

JERUSALEM - Mordechai Vanunu, the controversial nuclear whistle-blower who revealed years ago in a British newspaper interview that Israel in fact has atomic bombs, has paid dearly for disregarding Israel's long-held posture of ambiguity, by which it never officially acknowledges its nuclear arsenal.

Since Vanunu's 1986 conviction for treason, he has been confined to a prison in southern Israel, where he spent more than a decade in solitary confinement.

Now, having done his time, he is scheduled for release on April 21. Friends say he hopes to move to the United States and teach history.

But Israeli security officials say Vanunu, 49, remains a threat to "spill more secrets." Prime Minister Ariel Sharon reportedly is weighing a "package of restrictions" on Vanunu, including denying him a passport, limiting his movements inside Israel, and possibly prolonging his incarceration under "administrative detention," a punishment usually reserved for those suspected of terrorist acts.

Vanunu, a Moroccan-born Jew who later converted to Christianity, worked for almost a decade as a technician at Dimona, Israel's shadowy Negev Desert nuclear facility. In 1986, he quit his job, left the country, and went public with his contention that Israel was secretly producing nuclear weapons. Soon after, he was entrapped by Israeli agents in Europe, returned to Israel for trial, and convicted.

Vanunu's revelations, including 58 photographs he took of Dimona's classified control room and working models used for VIP visits, led independent experts to conclude that Israel has several hundred nuclear warheads and the capacity to produce about 10 a year.

What Vanunu knows and may yet reveal about perimeter security at the Dimona site, the names of former colleagues, and other sensitive topics has Israeli officials scrambling for ways to keep him muzzled even after he is freed.

Vanunu, who describes himself as an antinuclear activist, said in monitored letters from prison that he intended to keep speaking out about the dangers of nuclear proliferation.

"I don't intend to give up, to regret or to deny, to apologize or to be sorry," he wrote in a letter quoted last week on Israeli Channel 10.

Shabtai Shavit, a former head of the Mossad, Israel's intelligence service, told Channel 10 that the strategy of Vanunu and his supporters in the antinuclear movement is to create a rift between Israel and the United States, which gives $3 billion a year in foreign aid to the Jewish state, and has acquiesced in Israel's "don't ask, don't tell" policy on its unconventional-weapons capabilities.

"What he and his friends want to do is create... a situation in which the United States, according to U.S. law, will have to place sanctions on Israel," Shavit said.

What he meant was that Israel, the recipient of enormous amounts of U.S. aid, is not a signatory of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and the United States generally does not give aid to governments that have not signed the pact.

"Vanunu is just waiting for the day [to] continue damaging Israel," said Shavit, who believes Vanunu must be legally "gagged."

The resurfacing of the Vanunu episode comes as world attention is also focused on Pakistan, whose chief nuclear scientist was pardoned last week after selling his country's nuclear technology, expertise and material to Iran, Libya and North Korea for personal gain. It comes as stockpiles of unconventional weapons have yet to be found in Iraq.

It unfolds amid relentless calls by Arab and Muslim leaders for Israel to decommission its nuclear arsenal. If removing unconventional arms from the Middle East is in the world's interest, these leaders say, what about Israel?

Israelis are quick to point out the difference between Iraq, where a despotic leader used nerve gas against his own people, and Israel, a U.S. ally and the only democracy in the Middle East surrounded by larger, hostile countries.

But Vanunu poses a delicate problem, because "he is a very public reminder to the world that Israel has a clandestine nuclear-weapons program," Peter Hounam, author of the London Times article that started the affair back in 1986, told Channel 10.

Avner Cohen, a research fellow at the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland, is a leading expert on the history and politics of Israel's nuclear-weapons program. His book Israel and the Bomb is the definitive text on the subject. He is working on another about the subject he calls Israel's "last taboo." That work in progress, Cohen said, has been in the hands of Israeli censors - as required by law - for seven months.

The most likely outcome concerning more punishment for Vanunu, Cohen said, is that Israel will release him, prevent him from traveling abroad, and keep him under close scrutiny.

"They will remind him that the secrecy oath he took in the mid-'70s is still valid. The information he has already revealed is still classified, and he is not to talk about it. If he gives some sort of interview, they could rearrest him," Cohen said.

At one level, the Vanunu affair is a simple case of a government employee who violated his written pledge to protect Israel's national security.

But at another level, said Vanunu's lawyer, Avigdor Feldman, it strikes a nerve because it goes to the heart of the nation's raison d'être.

Born after World War II and the Holocaust in which millions of Jews were rounded up and killed, Israel was founded on the principle that Jews would never again be so weak.

This, Feldman said, shapes "the collective pathology of Israel's attitude towards it nuclear weapons." A nation with a doomsday bomb is a nation to be reckoned with, he said, and "Vanunu is understood as someone who tries to take away from Israel its sacred bomb."

Contact staff writer Michael Matza at 215-854-2405 or

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