Lonely battle of an Israeli whistle-blower

Had Mordechai Vanunu been, say, an Iranian or a Russian whistle-blower and facing persecution at home, he would have been assured of a prominent place in the western pantheon of heroes. But he is an Israeli dissident and Israel's friends in the West have no time for him.

The Morocco-born Mr. Vanunu first hit the headlines more than two decades ago when he revealed details of Israel's secret nuclear programme to a British newspaper — an offence for which he served a long jail term. Since then, he has been fighting an almost lone battle against harassment by successive Israeli administrations even though since his release in 2004 he has not said or done anything to harm the country's security.

Beyond lip-sympathy, the 56-year-old former technician at Israel's secret nuclear facility at Dimona has received no support from the western governments, normally so quick to condemn “persecution” of dissidents. The reaction of rights groups has also been uncharacteristically low-key, though individual politicians and rights activists have spoken out in his support from time to time. His frequent arrests on one pretext or the other are now barely noticed by the media.

Mr. Vanunu has been jailed again — this time for allegedly violating the terms of his parole which forbade him from meeting any foreigner. The “foreign” woman he met is his long-time Norwegian girlfriend. His relationship with this foreigner is apparently common knowledge in Israel — and if ordinary Israelis know it, surely Israeli's intelligence establishment too would be aware of it. “It is a relationship between a man and a woman. By chance, she is a Norewegian,” he said.

While being driven to jail last month, Mr. Vanunu gave vent to his frustration and anger over the world's indifference to his plight. Besides shouting abuse against his own government, he said: “Shame on you democracy, the Knesset, the world media. Shame on you all the Arabs who are allowing me to be put back in prison. Shame on you [U.S.] Senate, Congress and the chairman of the International Atomic Energy Agency for not protecting my freedom.”

Mr. Vanunu's case is as much about suppressing dissent by a supposedly democratic state as it is a demonstration of western double standards — one standard for allies such as Israel and another for countries that the West doesn't like. The question, his supporters are asking, is: would the western leaders have remained silent if a country other than Israel had treated its dissident in such a way? They point to the outcry over Iran's attempts to put down its dissidents after last year's controversial presidential election as an evidence of dual standards.

Leading global powers such as China and Russia routinely find themselves at the receiving end of western warnings and threats over their human rights record. Why, even India gets a rap on the knuckles every now and then over its treatment of the minorities and political dissidents. The incarceration of Binayak Sen in a Chhattisgarh jail (2007-2009) for his suspected Maoist links became a cause celebre for international rights groups and the campaign for his release was supported by leading British politicians, including MPs.

There has been no comparable pressure on Israel to stop browbeating Mr. Vanunu and calls for him to be given asylum in Britain and Norway have been ignored.

Mr. Vanunu's story is to be seen in the wider context of the secrecy that has surrounded Israel's nuclear weapons programme and its western allies' complicity. Under a disingenuous policy of “nuclear ambiguity,” Israel, which has refused to sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, neither confirms nor denies its nuclear capability. And the West happily accepts this fudge while demanding transparency from other countries; sometimes at gunpoint, as it were.

Iraq, after all, was bombed out of shape on the basis of nothing more than cooked up “evidence” of its nuclear capability, and Iran faces threats of military action every day from the very same countries that prefer to look the other way when the “n” word is mentioned in relation to Israel. Commentators argue that given the international concern over nuclear proliferation, Mr. Vanunu should have been hailed for blowing the lid off Israel's nuclear arsenal but, let alone acknowledging his effort, there has been no inclination even to offer him moral support as he fights the Israeli state.

Mr. Vanunu's travails began in 1986, shortly after he quit his job at the Dimona nuclear plant in the Negev Desert arguing that Israel's nuclear programme was a threat to peace in the region. He then left the country. While visiting Australia, he met a local journalist who arranged for him to give his story to The Sunday Times. After independently confirming the veracity of his claims, the newspaper flew him to London to help it put the story together —revealing for the first time, complete with photographs and maps, the scale of Israel's secret nuclear programme and, as one commentator put it, its “previously unimagined capacity for producing nuclear weapons.”

In a front-page splash on October 5, 1986, titled, “Revealed — the secrets of Israel's nuclear arsenal/ Atomic technician Mordechai Vanunu reveals secret weapons production,” the newspaper said Mr. Vanunu's “testimony and pictures” had been “scrutinised” by nuclear experts on both sides of the Atlantic and they “confirm” that Israel had “developed the sophisticated and highly classified techniques needed to build up a formidable nuclear arsenal.”

“The nuclear scientists consulted by The Sunday Times are convinced by Vanunu's evidence. They calculate that at least 100 and as many as 200 nuclear weapons of varying destructive power have been assembled — 10 times the previously estimated strength of Israel's nuclear arsenal,” it said adding: “Israel now ranks as the world's sixth most powerful nuclear power, after America, the Soviet Union, Britain, France and China — with an arsenal far greater than those of other countries such as India, Pakistan and South Africa, which have also been suspected of developing nuclear weapons.”

The revelations caused worldwide stir but even before they were published, the Mossad got wind of it and laid a “honey trap” luring Mr. Vanunu to Italy. Once there, he was drugged and taken to Israel where after a secret trial for treason he was jailed for 18 years — 11 in solitary confinement. He was released under sweeping restrictions that included a ban on leaving Israel, meeting foreigners and speaking to journalists. Since then, he has been in and out of jail mostly for alleged breaches of his terms of release.

After his latest arrest he told the court: “I survived 18 years — I could survive another six … You cannot take my freedom of expression away…You won't get from me in three months what you didn't get in 18 years.”

Mr. Vanunu has always maintained that his motivation in leaking Israel's nuclear secret was not financial but purely idealistic. The Sunday Times journalist Peter Hounam, who worked with him on the story and was closely involved in arranging the deal, has confirmed that the newspaper did not pay Mr. Vanunu anything except his expenses. In his book, The Woman from Mossad: The Torment of Mordechai Vananu, Mr Hounam highlights this fact pointing out that Mr. Vanunu's lack of interest in financial gain enhanced his credibility as a whistle-blower.

There is a hilarious account of how Mr. Vanunu was seduced by an American woman — who called herself Cindy — he met at Leicester Square in London on September 24, 1986. She claimed she was travelling alone and invited him to accompany her on a holiday to Italy. Six days later, they were on a flight to Rome with Mr. Vanunu having visions of an exciting Roman holiday. In the event, on arrival in Rome, “Cindy” handed him over to her Mossad minders who took him to Israel.

Notwithstanding Mr. Vanunu's motives, it is widely acknowledged that he was in breach of Israel's Official Secrets Act and the Israeli government was justified in taking the action it did. But having paid for his sins by serving his full jail term and not doing anything unlawful after his release, should he continue to be harassed and intimidated?

Apparently, Mr. Vanunu is a maverick who never felt at home with Jewish nationalism. British academic and writer Charles Foster, in his review of Mr. Hounam's book, says that Mr. Vanunu had a “big chip on his shoulder: he was a Sephardi Jew and felt he was ‘patronised by the Ashkenazi hierarchy' at Dimona. His colleagues were said to have found him ‘lonely and inadequate'.” They were also suspicious of what Mr. Foster describes as his “left-wing politics” and the fact that he made “pro-Palestinian speeches at a local university.”

Nearly quarter-of-a-century after the event, Mr. Vanunu continues to be reviled at home — and pursued by security agencies.

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