Nuclear. Secrecy. Treason. Mossad. Deterrence. Deception. Incarceration. The stuff dreams, and sometimes nightmares, are made of. It was all there in the Vanunu Affair of the 1980s, which in a sense still lingers on in the intense and lonesome person of Mordechai Vanunu, when he is spotted out and about in Jerusalem.
Israel’s nuclear project has always been based on a wink and a nudge, officially known as the “ambiguity doctrine,” a sort of an American-Israeli “don’t ask, don’t tell” understanding regarding whatever is being produced at the Dimona nuclear reactor. In the 1960s, it was a major bone of contention between Washington and Jerusalem, especially when John F. Kennedy was president and David Ben-Gurion served as prime minister. Ben-Gurion was the main force behind Dimona as the ultimate insurance policy against a potential second Holocaust. The JFK-BG conflict emanated from the American wish to cap global nuclear proliferation. The pressure culminated in Ben-Gurion’s resignation from office, a few months before Kennedy was assassinated in 1963.
Under Lyndon B. Johnson and Levi Eshkol relations gradually improved, but it was left to Richard Nixon and Golda Meir, at the turn of the decade, to seal the deal. As long as the Israelis shut their mouth, the Americans would close their eyes. Israel would not “introduce” its nuclear weapon, if they even have it. To shield successive U.S. administrations from their legal obligation to report to Congress – another willing participant in this charade – Israel would not confirm allegations regarding its nuclear capability, but to remind the Arabs that Israel had an ace up its sleeve, neither would such allegations be denied.
This formula worked beautifully as long as those who talked were not privy to the reality behind the open secret and those who were did not talk. It was always hearsay based on assessments with reference to foreign sources. To bring down this verbal house of cards, one would need an insider with credible evidence, but for the first quarter century of the nuclear project, until the mid-1980s, none came forward. To an amazing extent, lips were sealed for a period five times as long as the secrecy surrounding America’s Manhattan Project in World War II.
Enter Mordechai Vanunu, an embittered nuclear technician, radicalized by extreme left-wing circles and bent upon challenging Israel’s security doctrine. Exploiting lax safeguards at the Dimona plant from which he was about to resign, he smuggled a camera in and out, documenting physical features and proving his credentials. He also filled notebooks with facts and figures enabling experts to calculate the reactor’s production capability. Vanunu’s behavior raised some suspicions, but he had no problem leaving Israel for Australia and then Europe, where he started lobbying against his former employers.
It was only when he peddled his story to The Sunday Times of London, which cross-checked it prior to publication and asked the Israeli government for comment, that Jerusalem took Vanunu seriously, quickly moving from complacency to panic. Shortly before handing over the reins of power to his rival and partner Yitzhak Shamir, prime minister Shimon Peres tried to stop the dam from bursting open. He summoned the editors of Israel’s major newspapers and broadcast channels, imploring them to refrain from quoting the Sunday Times story after it was published on October 5, 1986.
By that time, Vanunu himself had been lured from London to Rome by a mysterious blonde from the Mossad, codenamed “Cindy.” He was abducted from Rome and brought to Israel to stand trial.
Along with the hallowed ambiguity, deterrence had to be maintained – at least regarding the thousands of top security clearance holders, sworn to secrecy much like Vanunu, who have kept the faith throughout the years.
Thus, the Israeli government came down as hard as it could on Vanunu, locking him up for 18 years (including 11 years in solitary confinement) on charges of espionage and treason and then limiting his movements after his release on grounds that he presented a constant security risk. His hopes that Israel’s nuclear position would be weakened – or that the Italian authorities would protest his abduction – were never realized.
But by flashing the instantly iconic message scrawled on his palm, Vanunu proved his high intelligence, determination, resilience and ingenuity, outwitting his guards and indeed the entire security apparatus. What a pity that Israel could not better utilize his talents.