‘No view on it’
- Nuclear Ambiguity: The Vanunu Affair by Yoel Cohen
Sinclair-Stevenson, 297 pp, £10.99, July 1992, ISBN 1 85619 150 8
Mordecai Vanunu is starting his seventh year in solitary confinement in an Israeli jail. He is convicted of treason and espionage and his sentence is 18 years. The few members of his family who are allowed to see him have doubts about whether his mind will last that long. Already there are signs that the remarkable coherence and determination which he showed during the first years of his ordeal are on the wane. If he does go mad, the authorities in Israel will be delighted. They have always presented Vanunu to the world as a misfit, a wayward semi-loon who, in the interests of his country, is best kept locked up.
Vanunu’s loyalty to his country started to dissolve during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, an exercise in international piracy which even Margaret Thatcher felt obliged to condemn. Vanunu couldn’t understand why his new country – the country to which his parents had voluntarily emigrated from Morocco – should engage in such monstrous and gratuitous slaughter. This led him to ask more questions about the relationship of the Israeli state to the Palestinians and about the relationship between people of property and people, like so many of the Moroccan Jews who had joined the migration to Israel, who had little or no property. In 1985, after three years of increasingly radical thinking, demonstrating and protesting, he applied to join the Communist Party. He was thirty years old. He was not a misfit. There was nothing remotely irrational about him. He was a rational rebel.
His rebelliousness naturally led him to question the job he was doing. Since 1976, he had been employed as a junior technician at a secret plant at Dimona. Vanunu knew perfectly well that the plant was making nuclear weapons. He also knew that most people in Israel, and the world, did not realise that Israel was a nuclear power. His worries about Israel’s foreign policy, and the maniacal raid on the Lebanon, led him to reflect on the likelihood that Israel might one day soon use these monstrous weapons. The argument of the ‘deterrent’, deployed so effectively to take the sting from the disarmament movement in countries like Britain and the United States, hardly applied to Israel. The governments of the other nuclear powers could assure their people that they would not use the bomb, and that no one would use the bomb, because one side’s nuclear arsenal deterred the other. But Israel’s enemies had no bomb. As soon as one of them, Iraq, started to develop a nuclear potential, Israel, in a ‘first strike’ which breached both the letter and the spirit of the United Nations Charter, knocked out the Iraqi plant. If there was no deterrent, and if Israel was capable of behaving as it had done in the Lebanon, why could they not use their nuclear bombs if they ever felt seriously threatened? Vanunu did not know at the time what is now generally known, and horrifyingly set out in this book: that Israel had already come very close to using its secret bombs. In October 1973, the Israeli prime minister Golda Meir, without consulting anyone else, gave permission to her Defence Minister, Moshe Dayan, to use nuclear weapons against the Egyptian armies which had pushed the Israelis back from the Suez Canal and at one stage looked set for an overwhelming victory. Only a lucky turn in the tide of battle prevented a worse catastrophe than Hiroshima.
Vol. 14 No. 23 · 3 December 1992
If, as Paul Foot suggests (LRB, 22 October), Mordecai Vanunu ‘knew that most people in Israel, and the world, did not realise that Israel was a nuclear power’ then Vanunu was sadly ignorant of the society he belonged to. Israel is a small country with thousands of people in the Army, the military and aircraft industries, the atomic energy commission and around campfires on reserve duty. Most of them have wives or girlfriends (sometimes both) and old friends. My own estimate is that ‘a’ per cent of Israel’s population knows (100 – a) per cent of its military secrets: half the population knows half the secrets, one-quarter knows three-quarters, 10 per cent knows 90 per cent, and so on. (Should a mathematician point out that at low values of ‘a’ – say, one five-millionth in the case of the prime minister – information still falls slightly short of 100 per cent he would be right: the Army often has secrets from the prime minister and vice versa.) With the French having built the Dimona reactor, and American and Russian satellites photographing everything once or twice a day, most governments must have known what was and was not going on here from the start. The rest of us Israelis will have heard or read about it shortly afterwards.
Mr Foot says that there was no nuclear deterrent in Israel’s case. It was widely believed here that if Israel dropped an atom bomb on an Arab country, a similar retaliatory bomb would fall on Tel Aviv within hours, from the direction of that Arab country. The fact that it was made in Russia and dropped with the help of Soviet ‘advisers’ would be a detail to be discussed afterwards.
Mr Foot writes about how Vanunu ‘was pounced on by goons from the Mossad, knocked out with an injection, bundled into a van to La Spezia and carried in a stinking hold to Israel’ where he is now ‘in captivity of the most unspeakable wretchedness’. If I had to add a recipe to the popular manuals on suicide, it would go like this: 1. get a job at a nuclear plant making atom bombs; 2. take photographs when nobody is looking; 3. publish them abroad; and 4. say your last prayers if the secret service involved will give you the time. Couldn’t our ‘crazier than ever’ authorities which have imprisoned this ‘courageous and gentle man’ at least get the credit for not making him disappear on the spot, as most secret services would have done?
Vol. 15 No. 2 · 28 January 1993
Zygmunt Frankel’s argument (Letters, 3 December 1992) that most Israelis believe that their country possesses the Bomb is generally lost on people outside Israel who have followed the Vanunu affair. Vanunu’s stated goal in making his disclosures to the Sunday Times was to inform Israel and the world at large about Israel’s nuclear research programme, but as I show in my book, Nuclear Ambiguity: The vanunu Affair, public opinion polls in Israel in 1986 found that most Israelis already believed their country possessed the Bomb. Moreover, the polls found that most Israelis favour secrecy on nuclear matters. These points were ignored by Paul Foot in his original review of the book (LRB, 22 October 1992).
Zygmunt Frankel should have considered two key questions. First, how can the minority in a democracy who oppose secrecy be kept informed by those in government about crucial matters like nuclear policy? The Israeli media have over the years been subject to numerous attempts by officialdom to prevent them reporting and discussing the subject. The only information which may be quoted about Israeli nuclear policy is derived from foreign media and foreign government sources. Vanunu’s disclosure, accurate or not, provided those who were interested with data on which to base intelligent discussion of the subject. Secondly, Frankel ignores the need for a democratic society which deems certain subjects secret nonetheless to provide for parliamentary scrutiny of government activity. Sadly, a doctorate could be written on the failure of successive Israeli governments to keep the Knesset’s Foreign and Defence Affairs Committee briefed, even though the Committee sits behind closed doors.
Rather than go public, Vanunu should have respected the public consensus on secrecy and expressed his belief that the nuclear research programme had run out of control to the Foreign and Defence Affairs Committee or to the State Comptroller’s Office, an official body which monitors government departments – particularly since his disclosures in the Sunday Times failed to show any imminent danger to the population.