Ignore Vanunu; Don't Restrict Him

Vanunu is a strange man with strange ideas who committed a very serious crime for which he was tried and imprisoned for a lengthy period. The restrictions imposed on him and the declarations of the terrible damage he could cause are unnecessary exaggeration. Leave Vanunu alone. Don't turn him into a cultural hero.

Who is so afraid of Mordechai Vanunu? For 20 years he has had no connection with new information regarding Israel's nuclear program and the Dimona reactor, where he worked as a junior technician and from where he was fired in 1985. He has already passed on all the information he had to the Sunday Times, which published it in October 1986. Why, then, have so many of the powers that be from the defense establishment banded together with such decisiveness to restrict his freedom upon his release tomorrow, after 18 years of incarceration?

Why does Yehiel Horev, chief or internal security (malmab) at the Defense Ministry, want to keep him under administrative detention and define him as a serious security risk? The answer appears to have nothing to do with the supposedly dangerous nuclear secrets Vanunu still has stored in his brain. Apparently, the defense establishment, and particularly the Shin Bet security service and the Defense Ministry's internal security department, simply wants to avoid embarrassment and criticism if Vanunu tells how he made a laughing stock of the system that was in charge of protecting secrets at the Dimona reactor.

To this day, there has been no serious probe into the failures of the Shin Bet and the internal security department, which share the responsibility for securing the reactor in Dimona. The joint internal examination committee of both bodies, which was established after the disclosure of the Vanunu affair, included Horev, the current chief of security and the individual appointed by the defense establishment to oversee security at the reactor during part of the period when Vanunu worked there. The committee's work was a whitewash. No one was found directly responsible for the failure and no one was held accountable for the fact that the information on Vanunu's political activities at Be'er Sheva University - his relationships with Arab students and his remarks against Israel's nuclear policy - never set off a warning bell among those responsible for the security of the most secret facility in Israel.

Since all this concerns nuclear matters, the discussion of which is taboo, there was also no demand for and accounting from those responsible for the serious failure. Everything could change if Vanunu talks. This may also be the reason for the fact that he was kept in solitary confinement for more than 11 years. Beyond the desire to take revenge on someone who embarrassed the system, there was apparently also the hope that he would lose his mind, and would therefore be unable to tell how he managed to deceive the security system.

The series of restrictions to be imposed on the "nuclear prisoner" would not put even Stalin's Soviet Union to shame. Vanunu will not be issued a passport and he will be forbidden to leave Israel. He will have to live in a certain city, of his own choosing, but will not be allowed to leave that city's jurisdiction without prior coordination with the local police station. He will not be allowed to approach any Israeli border crossing, including Ben-Gurion International Airport, the sea ports, crossings into the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Gaza, the crossings between the PA and Jordan and Egypt, the direct crossings between Israel and Jordan or Egypt, nor any marina at which there is a police checkpoint. And will also not be allowed any contact - face-to-face, by telephone, fax or e-mail - with foreign residents, even those living in Israel.

Immediately after his exit from prison, Vanunu will also have to learn the addresses of all the foreign embassies in Israel - because he is not allowed to go near them either; and if he doesn't not know their exact locations, he might accidentally walk down an adjacent street and come close enough to one of them to land himself back in jail.

The defense establishment continues to err in the Vanunu affair, just as it did in the 1980s. Instead of allowing him to wander around the world, speak about anything he wished to speak about and simply ignoring him, attention is being focused directly on a man who can cause absolutely minimal damage. What could happen anyway? Vanunu will claim that Israel has to be disarmed of her nuclear weapons. He would be invited to conferences and be honored by those who hate Israel. He would become a hero for a moment for those who want to pressure Israel on the nuclear issue. Well, so what? Will that harm national security? Of course not.

A similar mistake was made, by the way, in 1986, when the Sunday Times hesitated to publish Vanunu's revelations, fearing that they were a fabrication (this was a short time after the paper had fallen victim to fraud and published "Hitler's Diaries," which turned out to be forgeries). Only after the editor of the Times realized that then prime minister Shimon Peres had convened the editors' committee and had asked its members not to give the affair broad coverage, did the British newspaper become convinced that Vanunu was telling the truth and published his account and the photographs he had taken.

Vanunu is not a conscientious objector. He does not belong to the group of scientists and academicians working to rid the world of its nuclear weapons. He is a strange man with strange ideas who committed a very serious crime for which he was tried and imprisoned for a lengthy period. The restrictions imposed on him and the declarations of the terrible damage he could cause are unnecessary exaggeration. Leave Vanunu alone. Simply ignore him. Don't turn him into a cultural hero.