Did Israel Blow Up the Vanunu Nuclear Whistleblower Affair to Boost Its Deterrence?

Thirty years after the espionage case that rocked Israel and exposed its nuclear secrets, it can be asked whether Mordechai Vanunu is actually tool in the hands of vested interests

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A 2004 photograph of Mordechai Vanunu, who holds a copy of the original story that ran in the Sunday Times 18 years earlier.
A 2004 photograph of Mordechai Vanunu, who holds a copy of the original story that ran in the Sunday Times 18 years earlier. Credit: ODED BALILTY/AP
Adam Raz
Adam Raz
Adam Raz
Adam Raz

In March 1988, Mordechai Vanunu, a junior technician at the Nuclear Research Center in Dimona, was convicted of espionage and treason, after having made available to unauthorized persons photographs and information about the reactor in that southern Israeli city. A year and a half earlier, he had been kidnapped in Rome and brought secretly to Israel, where he stood trial.

Here’s what we know: In October 1985, Vanunu was fired from his job at the NRC, after nine years. Shortly afterward, he began traveling the globe. Within a few months, while he was in Australia, he was put in contact with the Sunday Times of London, the newspaper that would afterward publish an investigative report based on his testimony. The paper flew Vanunu to London in order to authenticate his testimony with a well-known nuclear expert, Frank Barnaby. For some weeks, the paper wasn’t fully convinced that Vanunu was telling the truth, but in the end they decided to go ahead with the report.

On September 30, 1986, lured by a female Mossad agent, Vanunu left London for a vacation in Rome, despite the paper’s warning that traveling could put him in danger. From then until October 5, the day on which the story appeared, the Sunday Times was unable to locate Vanunu – only later did it become known that he had been snatched and was being held in Israel.

It all seems straightforward enough. But it turns out that the Sunday Times was very close to shelving the investigative report, and that it was only the actions of some Israelis, whether by intent or not, that persuaded the paper to go ahead. In fact, one can even say that, if the paper had not published its investigation, there would have been no “Vanunu affair.”

‘Eccentric’ guy

It was the panic that prevailed among Israeli authorities that persuaded the paper that Vanunu was for real.

Most Israelis perceive the affair as one of the low points in the defense establishment, and in particular of its director of security. At the same time, considerable doubts arise regarding the “blunder” thesis, which are worth considering.

Contrary to the belief that Vanunu’s actions took the Israeli security services by surprise, Peter Hounam, the Sunday Times reporter who led the team that interviewed him, told the Israeli newspaper Davar in September 1988, “We know for a fact that Israel’s security services knew that Vanunu was giving us information – already when we were debriefing him in Australia, before he arrived in London. But they did nothing.”

Indeed, journalists in Australia had asked the Israeli Embassy there for information about the “eccentric” guy who was claiming to have worked at Israel’s nuclear reactor. And when Vanunu stepped off the plane in London, weeks before the story was published, he was already under surveillance. Throughout this period, the Israeli secret services did not contact Vanunu, nor did they make any effort to prevent him from giving interviews – which made the Sunday Times suspect that Israel was trying to dupe them. Hounam, who spent long days with Vanunu, added, in Davar, “I know for certain that if Motti [Vanunu] had been warned that what he was doing was serious in the eyes of the state, he would have reconsidered and perhaps not have gone ahead.”

What made the Sunday Times change its mind, considering that its editor, Andrew Neil, had decided at the end of September to scrub the story?

On September 26, 1986, Prime Minister Shimon Peres summoned the editors of Israel’s newspapers to a “closed” meeting (which was soon reported by the Israeli and world media), at which he told them about the report that was going to appear in the Sunday Times. Neil was quoted in Haaretz later that fall as noting that it was the panic that prevailed among Israeli authorities that persuaded the paper that Vanunu was for real.

The extensive reports about the “closed” meeting infuriated the Mossad – Peres had not consulted with the espionage organization before talking to the editors. However, no Israeli official is known to have asked Rupert Murdoch, the Times’ publisher, whose pro-Israel stance was common knowledge, to shelve the report.

On the days leading up to the story’s publication, reports appeared in various papers about the investigation involving Vanunu. On September 28, for example, the Sunday Mirror, the tabloid competitor of the Sunday Times, published an article headlined “The Strange Case of Israel and the Nuclear Conman.” The story characterized Vanunu as a liar, and as having a criminal record and displaying unstable behavior. But the Mirror report was inaccurate and made claims about him that the Times’ investigation had not even turned up. Still, Andrew Neil told Haaretz that day that he did not intend to publish the investigative report at this stage.

Sunday Times reporter Peter Hounam.Credit: Nir Keidar

The report in the Mirror thus seemed to give ammunition to those who wanted to shelve the investigation. However, despite the impression that the Mirror exposé may have created about Vanunu, it was reported at the same time, in Israel and abroad, that “an Israeli source in London” had checked his past and confirmed that he was indeed connected to Israel’s Atomic Energy Commission. That boosted Vanunu’s credibility in the eyes of the Sunday Times. It wasn’t until a few months later that the identity of the “Israeli source” became known: the Israeli Embassy in London.

It appears, then, that the central factor in ending the hesitation of the Sunday Times (which, a few years before, had suffered a serious blow to its image, when the so-called “Hitler Diaries,” for which it bought the publication rights, turned out to be a forgery), and in motivating it to go ahead with publication had its source in the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem. Hounam asked the Israeli Embassy in London to clarify details about Vanunu, and the embassy “saw fit to confirm that [he] was an NRC employee,” as the trial transcript notes.

This point raises a number of interesting questions. To begin with, Israeli embassies do not have lists of civil servants, still less of NRC employees. Nor does the Foreign Ministry (which was headed at the time by Yitzhak Shamir) possess such lists. The AEC is responsible for operating the Dimona reactor, and it is subordinate to the prime minister.

According to the former diplomat Eviatar Manor, who was the spokesman of the London embassy at the time and its liaison with the Sunday Times, questions such as Hounam’s were referred to the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem. Manor doesn’t know how the decisions were made there, but notes that it is more than likely that the query was passed on to the Prime Minister’s Office. We can assume, with all due caution, that someone in the PMO confirmed to the embassy that Vanunu had worked in the Dimona reactor – and on top of that, gave the embassy a green light to convey that information to the newspaper.

So public was the 'trick' used to entrap Vanunu that the magistrate investigating the incident in Rome found it hard to believe that the Mossad had acted so sloppily.

Entrapment ‘trick’

So public was the “trick” used to entrap Vanunu, and the way in which he was brought to Israel that the magistrate investigating the incident in Rome, Judge Domenico Sica, claimed that the episode was a “well-orchestrated disinformation campaign,” as he found it hard to believe that the Mossad had acted so sloppily. In an August 1988 interview with the Israeli newspaper Maariv, Sica stated his suspicion that the “Vanunu affair” in general was an Israeli ploy to raise the nuclear anxiety level. “The whole affair was bizarre and filled with contradictions, so much so that it looks to have been a deliberate act of deception,” he added.

Vanunu’s kidnapping on September 30, 1986, and the photograph of him placing the palm of his hand, on which he had written the bare details of his “hijacking,” on the window of the vehicle that was taking him to be remanded, played a key role in generating credibility globally. In fact, as Hounam said, it wasn’t the story in the Sunday Times that attracted worldwide attention to the affair: “It seems to me that only Israel made a big deal of it. What turned the affair into international news was Vanunu’s disappearance even before publication.”

Although the paper continued to have suspicions that it was the object of a sophisticated Israeli disinformation campaign, it changed its stance after the convening of the editors in Israel on September 26 (which the paper learned about within two or three days), and the embassy’s confirmation that Vanunu had worked at the NRC.

Vanunu’s lawyer, Avigdor Feldman, stated during the closed-door trial that “the state’s general behavior does not indicate a deep fear... that this report endangers its security The Israeli Embassy knew about the report in quite a bit of detail some time before its publication The state took no significant action to prevent publication when it was possible to prevent it We maintain [that the state] had, if not a desire for these things to be published, at least some sort of tacit acceptance [of the fact] that, actually, if Mr. Vanunu was going to make it public that the state has 200 nuclear warheads, it’s not really terrible for this to be published, not terrible for Israel’s enemies to see and tremble.”

It emerges that Feldman’s remarks about Israel’s interest had a factual basis: There were individuals in Israel who worked knowingly to turn the matter into an “affair.” One of those who had an interest in signaling Israel’s ostensible nuclear capability was Prime Minister Peres.

Though Peres portrayed himself over the years as the “father” of Israel’s policy of nuclear ambiguity, according to the recently published “Yigal Allon: A Neglected Political Legacy,” by Udi Manor, even from the beginning of Israel’s nuclear project, Peres believed that Israel needed to adopt a policy of open nuclear deterrence – meaning, to be a nuclear state like other nuclear states, and not to “hide the bomb in the basement.” And in fact, a month after the Sunday Times published its report, Haaretz cited Peres as saying that, “he doesn’t think the reports harmed Israel.”

Mordechai Vanunu in court in 2017.Credit: Emil Salman

Since his release from prison in 2004, following an 18-year term, Vanunu has been under numerous restrictions. He is still not permitted to leave the country or speak to foreign nationals or journalists of any kind, nor can he change his place of residence without notifying the authorities in advance. One of the flagrant violations of his terms of release was an interview he gave in 2015 to Israel’s Channel 2 News – not exactly a secret spy ring. Last year, he was tried and convicted for that and other violations of the conditions of his release, including meeting with two American citizens, and moving to a new apartment without giving prior notification. The judge sentenced Vanunu to 120 hours of community service work and a two-month suspended sentence.

Shortly before his release, the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee held a special session to discuss the severe restrictions that were to be imposed on him. The defense establishment’s director of security, Yehiel Horev, who attended the meeting, said, “In the State of Israel, the body that is in charge of non-exposure in the nuclear realm, is the body I head.” Horev went on to justify to the MKs the constraints that would be imposed on Vanunu, emphasizing that this was a “truly singular case – it would be wrong to generalize [and say that] we are becoming a police state.”

To this day, the state insists that Vanunu continues to constitute a risk because of the information in his possession – information to which he had access in his work at the nuclear center more than 30 years ago – that still has not been made public. In the Knesset committee meeting, Horev stated, “I have more information than anyone present here And I say to you that there is a significant delta [disparity] between what he told and what he hasn’t yet told.”

It’s definitely possible that the Sunday Times did not publish all the material its staff extracted from Vanunu.

A year later, in another committee session, Shai Nitzan, then deputy state prosecutor (today he is state prosecutor), said that before Vanunu’s release, “security personnel put forward a serious argument that, Vanunu possesses information about additional state secrets A second argument, which complimented the first, [is] that Vanunu is determined to tell all those secrets.” In light of the fact that classified documents about the discussions surrounding the case are unavailable to the public, what Horev said remains the conventional wisdom within the defense establishment (and, as a result, among the judiciary). Who within the system will challenge this publicly? No one, whatever his reasons.

Still, thanks to WikiLeaks, it’s possible to read at least one different opinion about Vanunu’s conditions of release and about the danger he poses. In April 2004, John Bolton, an American diplomat who later served as his country’s UN ambassador and has just been appointed President Donald Trump’s new national security adviser, visited Israel – at that time in his capacity as a senior adviser to President George W. Bush. During his visit, the U.S. Embassy reported to Washington about several conversations the American delegation held with AEC personnel. Bolton met with the commission’s director general at the time, Gideon Frank, who told him about Israel’s position ahead of Vanunu’s release.

From Frank’s comments, as reported by WikiLeaks, it appears that Israel’s problem with Vanunu is not the sensitive information he possesses about the nuclear reactor, but that he simply wants “to destroy the Dimona nuclear facility.” Indeed, Vanunu became a well-known symbol in the world struggle against nuclear armament. In fact, Frank emphasized that Vanunu “had not had access to a lot of sensitive information about Dimona”; the main concern, he said, was that Vanunu “would simply invent and spread lies.” He added that Vanunu had leaked the information he possessed, but that not everything “made it into print.”

Dissenting opinion

However, whereas Frank supported the restrictions imposed on Vanunu, his deputy, Eli Levite, “expressed a very different view,” as the U.S. Embassy noted in a cable to Washington and reported by WikiLeaks. Levite, a researcher who has studied, among other things, the perception of the Dimona reactor in the Arab states, explained to the American visitors that Yehiel Horev “was the driving force behind the [Israeli government’s] campaign to restrict Vanunu’s liberty.” Levite, noting that Horev already held his position when Vanunu was arrested, added critically that he resembled people “who held similar positions for 18 years in former communist countries.” That is, they entrench themselves in their post for long years and concentrate great power in their hands. (Horev retired in 2007 after 21 years as security director.) Israel is a democracy, Levite noted, and “should therefore leave Vanunu alone now that he has paid his debt to society.” In other words, in his opinion Vanunu did not pose any sort of security risk.

Fourteen years have passed since Horev, Frank and Levite expressed their opinions, and it looks as though Levite got it right. It’s definitely possible that the Sunday Times did not publish all the material its staff extracted from Vanunu; that Barnaby, the nuclear expert who advised the paper, was negligent in his work; and also that Vanunu remembers certain details that he still hasn’t yet made public. At the same time, and despite the fact that some have made him a symbol of the antinuclear campaign, there’s no evidence that he has made any use since his release of the information he possesses. Many of those who are critical of the restrictions imposed on Vanunu maintain that the state and the current director of security of the defense establishment are trying to extract revenge from him for having exposed publicly Israel’s holy of holies – the secrets of the nuclear reactor at Dimona.

Nevertheless, given the developments that shed light on Israel’s role in turning Vanunu into the “Vanunu affair,” the truth is apparently a bit different. I do not mean that Vanunu was an agent of Israel, but that at a certain stage there were those in Israel who grasped the anticipated profit his actions could bring.

The U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv said so explicitly, in one of the documents published by WikiLeaks: “The [Israeli government] is only contributing to the international cult around Vanunu in its continuing campaign against him. Vanunu’s revelations in 1986 did nothing to set back Israel’s nuclear program, and we have difficulty imagining that anything he says or does today could harm the program or otherwise damage Israeli national security.”

Something else arises from the remarks by Levite and the embassy. One can agree with Vanunu’s deeds or object to them; claim that he is a traitor or a persistent (albeit silent) activist in the campaign against nuclear disarmament; and one can claim that he was exploited politically and deceived. But the treatment of Vanunu affects not only him: It also helps sustain the global discussion of Israel’s nuclear program and spotlights the country. And today, as was the case 30 years ago, there are some who welcome this.



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