With its deeds and failures, the state of Israel has turned Mordechai Vanunu into a symbol, the standard-bearing martyr of its last taboo. It began with Israel conducting his trial behind closed doors - and keeping most of the trial details banned from publication to this day - and it continued for the 18 years of his imprisonment, something unprecedented in a properly run country. Unlike murderers, rapists and their ilk, Vanunu served the full length of his prison term.
During his years in prison, many wanted him to lose his sanity, to become a living symbol of the last taboo who sinks into oblivion. Almost paradoxically, Vanunu remained sane. And not only did he keep his sanity but also the more he was persecuted, the more he embraced Israel's crucifixion of him, and turned it into his symbol. The more the censors erased from his letters any expression of his attitude toward Israeli nuclear weapons, the more his reputation as a symbol grew.
Even now, after he paid the full price of breaking the law, in the Israeli consciousness Vanunu is still perceived as a security threat. And not because of the classified information that, heaven forbid, he has in his brain, but because a freed Vanunu is apparently a graver threat to the final Israeli taboo than a jailed Vanunu.
The last Israeli taboo still has legitimacy in the Israeli discourse. Those who believe that Vanunu's basic civil rights were violated still believe that nuclear ambiguity is good for the Jews. There is no greater sacred cow than nuclear ambiguity, both for the right and for the left. Since it is perceived as the Holy of Holies, protecting Israel from all evil, everything is permissible, including harm to human rights, as happened in Vanunu's case - and in the case of Brig. Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Yaakov.
Only a few people, if any, are capable of explaining in an orderly manner what nuclear ambiguity is, why Israel in the 21st century still needs it and whether it is an appropriate policy for a country that wants to belong to the family of Western nations. The nuclear ambiguity policy has lost any wile and mystery that it might have once had and has turned into an anachronistic dinosaur, anti-democratic and based entirely on a culture and ritual of secrecy.
Vanunu, like the little boy who shouted that the emperor is naked, felt it was his duty to say so. The source of his crime, betraying the secret, is the original sin of the ambiguity. He may be the inevitable result of a policy based on secrecy and concealment.
In a new article in the May/June issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, available on line at the bulletin's Web site, the authors, Thomas Graham, a former presidential ambassador for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and I, call for a new international protocol, one that would legitimize Israel as a nuclear state, along with India and Pakistan. In exchange, Israel would join an international non-proliferation regime, but without signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
We argue in the article that Israel's policy of ambiguity is not only anachronistic, but also has become a political burden on the U.S. and the international regime aimed at preventing nuclear proliferation. Since Israel remains outside that international regime, it makes it difficult for the need to strengthen the mechanisms preventing nuclear proliferation. We also argue that the axiom often heard in Israel, that ambiguity is a requirement of Israel's relationship with the U.S., has lost its validity.
The policy of ambiguity and the social taboo backing it up symbolize our inability as a democratic society to deal with the nuclear issue properly. They reflect our fear of normalizing our approach to the weighty subject. It is evidence of fears and paranoia from the past, and is past its time.
Nearly totally ignoring Israel's official policy of ambiguity, the world regards Israel to be obviously a nuclear power. The world also knows that Israel won't give up that capability, and even under conditions of full-fledged peace will find a way to keep its insurance policy for a rainy day. And while everyone knows it, only the State of Israel finds it difficult to say so.
How ironic it is that Vanunu, the man who has become the global symbol of moral opposition to nuclear weaponry, contributed to the recognition that Israel is a permanent nuclear fact that will not be transitory. The time has come to put the nuclear issue on the national table. The time has come to tell the truth.
The writer is a senior researcher at the University of Maryland and author of the book "Israel and the Bomb." His new book, "The Last Israeli Taboo" has been under examination by the military censor for the last nine months.
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