Background / Is Israel Secretly Glad Vanunu Spilled Secrets?

The Vanunu story has something for everyone - intrigue, betrayal, secret agents and seduction, shadowy trials, pathos and religious epiphany, and above all, the nation's most publicly vilified traitor. The story may also have something in it for the State of Israel.

Not since the Cold War case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg has world attention been so riveted - and divided - by allegations of nuclear espionage.

The story of Mordechai Vanunu has something for everyone - intrigue, betrayal, secret agents and seduction, an enforced disappearance worthy of Mission: Impossible, whispered revelations and clandestine photos blown straight onto one of the world's most prestigious front pages, shadowy trials, pathos and religious epiphany.

Nothing is missing from the epic: buried nuclear stockpiles, elemental issues of conscience, 12 years in solitary, a nobody-turned-icon, a defendant silenced with the heavy hand of a policeman clamped over his mouth, debate bridging oceans, adoration in some quarters of a man seen as a modern-day saint, vilification in others of a blackguard who sold out his country and bared its deepest secrets, the nation's most publicly pilloried traitor.

The story may also have something in it for the State of Israel.

Since 1986, when the Sunday Times of London published Vanunu's detailed account of Israel's having manufactured as many as 200 atomic bombs, no Israeli has ever been more vehemently condemned by his government for having caused mortal - if as yet unspecified - harm to national security.

The intervening 18 years have done little to alter the picture. An Army Radio report on Vanunu's imminent release referred to "the man whom Israel views as perhaps the gravest traitor in its history."

Still, behind closed doors in senior echelons of the Israeli government and defense establishment, there may well be those who believe Vanunu's revelations did Israel's defense posture an invaluable service.

"Paradoxically, Vanunu actually contributed to the nation's security," argues Haaretz defense analyst Reuven Pedatzur, in a reference to Israel's decades-long official position of "amimut" as to whether the Jewish state possesses a nuclear arsenal. The Hebrew word is usually rendered as "ambiguity," but is actually closer in the original to obtuseness, an intentional dimness.

"His revelations strengthened Israel's deterrent picture on the other side, without us having to pay any price in divulging what we have," says Pedatzur.

Israel has long feared that official acknowledgement of a non-conventional weapons program could lead to imposition of international inspection and the prospect of forced disarmament.

There are those in the defense and political establishments who were secretly gladdened by the splash created by the Vanunu-inspired Sunday Times account of an extensive Israeli nuclear weapons program, Pedatzur maintains.

"There are people who understand this very well," he says. "Everyone with eyes in his head was glad, everyone who understands strategy and who followed what was going on in the Arab world after Vanunu."

According to Pedatzur, "The response one would have expected from the Arab world was one of frenzied outrage. But the response was in fact very low-key.

"Thus, our deterrent image had been greatly strengthened as a result of Vanunu's revelations. It only reinforced what the other side already knew. At the same time, they avoided raising a great outcry, knowing that if they did so, in Egypt, Syria and other states, the people would have turned to their rulers, demanding 'Why don't you do something against this?'"

As things stand, the leaders have found ways to live relatively comfortably with the state of affairs, he continues. "They have reconciled themselves to a nuclear Israel for many years. Thus, absurd as it may sound, Vanunu contributed to state security."

A number of Israelis have suggested that if it had been Israel's genuine interest all along to keep Vanunu and his secrets from wide public attention, it could hardly have done a worse job.

There was no better case in point than Vanunu's release on Wednesday. In a curious step, the Israeli Government Press Office, which has in recent years boasted of its efforts to hobble foreign correspondents deemed overly critical of Israel, bent over backwards at Ashkelon's Shikma Prison to film such insider views as the pre-release Vanunu adjusting his tie, in views the GPO then flashed live to world news networks.

GPO Director Danny Seaman was uncharacteristically nonplussed when grilled by Israel Radio over the aid to foreign coverage. "I'm not the one who made the decision," he said. "We simply acted as the conduit." Asked who had made the decision, his answer was simple: "Not me."

In recent days, government agencies and the IDF Home Front Command clamped a long list of restrictions on the nominally freed Vanunu. The restrictions include a ban on leaving Israel for a full year, a prohibition against speaking to foreign nationals unless granted prior permission, restrictions on where Vanunu can sleep and reside and an order barring him from Internet chats.

Vanunu stressed in his remarks Wednesday that he had no further secrets to divulge, a position that Pedatzur endorses. "What can he say after 20 years that he has not already said?"

Many observers suggested Wednesday that Israel's official characterizations of Vanunu as a man who still poses uncommon danger to state security only heightened international interest in his case.

Even senior Israeli officials who believe Vanunu still possesses sensitive state secrets say that prosecutors erred when they recommended Vanunu be released with limitations.

Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Chairman Yuval Steinitz argued instead for administrative detention, to make it impossible for the former Dimona technician to reach a public audience.

Vanunu's attorney Avigdor Feldman said the defense establishment had brought about a "media-political-security carnival" to accompany Vanunu's release.

Responding to media accounts of Vanunu as possessing "documents that describe with astounding detail how Israel manufactures nuclear weapons 'down to the last bolt,'" and material that allegedly revealed what convicted American spy Jonthan Pollard had secretly passed to his Israeli handlers, Feldman was adamant that Vanunu had no cards left to show.

"Vanunu was a technician in the nuclear reactor," said Feldman. "He was responsible for a very particular segment of production. He could also go around in several areas. He did that, and he took pictures. He sat with the Sunday Times journalist. Whoever takes and reads that yellowing Sunday Times in some archive will see the drawings and pictures of the way in which nuclear weapons are made, down to the last bolt."

"He has no further information. Nor does he have any interest in further information," said Feldman.

Nonetheless, he added: "As a result of a week-long campaign of official leaks that portrayed Vanunu as seeking the destruction of the Jewish state" - a campaign Vanunu decried as false in one of his first statements after leaving prison - "the man who had been the most closely guarded, the most classified, the most prohibited from speaking in the whole country, was turned into the most spoken about."