‘No view on it’

Paul Foot

  • 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.

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