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Israeli nuclear foe still fighting

By Paul Martin
The Washington Times
July 8 2004

JERUSALEM — Israeli nuclear whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu demanded last night that he be allowed to brief the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, who was making a rare visit to the Jewish state.

Mr. Vanunu, the technician who served 17 years in an Israeli prison for revealing details of the country's nuclear secrets, also told The Washington Times that Mr. ElBaradei is failing to adequately investigate and criticize Israel's nuclear program.

It was the first time Mr. Vanunu has spoken to an American news organization since he left prison.

Under the terms of his release, he is barred from speaking to foreigners, entering Internet chat rooms or approaching foreign embassies. Last month, he made remarks to the British Broadcasting Corp., causing a journalist to be arrested by police and barred from returning to Israel.

Nevertheless, Mr. Vanunu chose the occasion of Mr. ElBaradei's visit to make a dramatic and, in hisown view, "very risky" entry into the discussion.

A representative of an international news agency was also present for a short period during The Times' encounter with Mr. Vanunu, which lasted several hours.

The former technician complained that Mr. ElBaradei had made no effort to get in touch with him, even though the media has widely reported his whereabouts in East Jerusalem.

Mr. Vanunu urged the chief of the U.N. nuclear watchdog to demand entrance to the Dimona reactor, where he had worked and secretly photographed several underground and top-secret floors, including a plutonium-processing facility and what scientists later said was a model for a nuclear bomb. He shared these secrets with the Sunday Times of London in 1986, and was later lured to Rome by an attractive women, where Israeli agents kidnapped him.

"I think ElBaradei is operating in secret with [the Israelis]," Mr. Vanunu said yesterday. "All he'll hear in his planned meetings with Prime Minister [Ariel] Sharon and the others will be propaganda and disinformation."

In a gesture of openness, Israel this week placed on a Web site the first photos of its nuclear plant, other than the more detailed ones taken by Mr. Vanunu in his last months at Dimona.

Responding to the ElBaradei visit, Mr. Sharon said Israel would continue to maintain its silence over whether it possesses nuclear weapons, even though the world's major intelligence agencies estimate Israel has up to 240 nuclear devices.

"I don't know what [Mr. ElBaradei] is coming to see," Mr. Sharon said. "Israel has to hold in its hand all the elements of power necessary to protect itself by itself. "Our policy of ambiguity on nuclear arms has proved its worth, and it will continue," Mr. Sharon said.

Mr. ElBaradei urged Israel in December to dismantle its nuclear arsenal.

But Israel has never signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, designed to prevent the global spread of atomic weapons.

While Israel's failure to sign means it is ineligible to receive technical aid and equipment for the peaceful use of nuclear energy, it also frees the country from inspections or sanctions by Mr. Baradei's agency.

Mr. Vanunu said Mr. ElBaradei owes it to the world to demand entry to the bottom five floors of Dimona and said U.S. lawmakers were duped in the 1960s when they visited the plant but were shown only the top few floors. "The Israelis even built false walls at some points," he said.

Mr. Vanunu said Israel had erred in believing it could defuse Arab threats by building nuclear weapons. "It was a very bad policy led by Peres in the 1950s," Mr. Vanunu said, referring to Shimon Peres, the former foreign minister and prime minister. "They believed they could make peace through nuclear weapons. Yet since those days, the weapons have been the source of all the wars."

Mr. Vanunu is a hero to some in Israel and the international community, but is considered a traitor by many of his countrymen. He said he could have understood if Israel had produced only a handful of thermonuclear weapons, but not the vast array he suspected was being produced in Dimona.

He conceded that he had never seen any weapons, nor had anyone ever mentioned weapons production during his years at the plant. But he photographed a model that he says he recognized as a mock-up of a neutron bomb.

He believes Israel has also developed hydrogen bombs. "Having a conventional nuclear weapon may have been a deterrent," he said, referring to Arab declarations to destroy the Jewish state. "But I grew alarmed when I realized just how much Israel was producing."

He said he still believes that if Israel had not developed its nuclear arsenal, the Arab states would not have been able to produce their own. "No foreign power would have helped the Arabs," he said.

He acknowledged that Israelis felt safer in the belief that their warheads will deter Arabs from dreams of total conquest. But he believes that if the full extent of Israel's weaponry were known inside Israel, it would produce a change in policy.

"Israelis are psychologically brainwashed — by their leaders and by media incitement," he said. "But I believe Israeli citizens will be against genocidal weapons if they heard the truth. "I believe even now Israel should disarm its nuclear weapons," he said.

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