Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, December 1986, Page 1

Special Report

Israel's Nuclear Arsenal

By Jane Hunter

What the Israeli Government Press Office calls "Vanunumania" is sweeping the country. The newspapers cannot print enough stories about Mordechai Vanunu, the former technician who divulged details of Israel's secret nuclear bomb-making facility in the Negev Desert to theSunday Times of London and then disappeared without collecting his advance on a book contract.

As it voraciously reads about Vanunu's past and about foreign reports that Israeli agents abducted him and that he is now being detained at a secret location in Israel, the Israeli public reviles him as a traitor. A clamor is rising for Vanunu to be given a public trial, as an example to others who betray state secrets. Anger is also being directed at the state security services, which had investigated Vanunu's leftist and pro-Palestinian political views, for letting him out of the country with photographs and documents about the processes at the Dimona plant.

As to the secrets revealed by Vanunu, that Israel is able to extract plutonium at its underground plant at Dimona in the Negev Desert and has built an arsenal of up to 200 sophisticated nuclear weapons, they seem not to have a profound impact, except on some of Israel's neighbors, whose worst fears about Israel's expansionist intentions seem to be justified and who now must consider acquiring a nuclear arsenal of their own.

The determination by leading nuclear physicists who examined the photographs and documents Vanunu smuggled out of the Dimona plant that Israel is the world's sixth-ranking nuclear weapons state has failed to draw a public reaction in Israel or the US. A follow-up article by theSunday Times which featured an admission by Dr. Francis Perrin, a former French nuclear official, that France had knowingly built the weapons factory for Israel between 1957 and 1959 and had earlier collaborated with the Israelis on developing an atomic bomb, also failed to raise a storm.

When pressed for a reaction, the Reagan administration came out with some measured phrases about its wish that Israel would sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and open its Dimona facility to inspection. Congressional leaders have not been heard to comment on the implications of Israel's ambitious nuclear weapons program.

In fact, had it not been for the continued interest in the fate of Mordechai Vanunu, his revelations about Israel's secret nuclear weapons plant might have been stifled with a monumental yawn. That interest has centered on the continued silence of the Israeli government as to whether or not it is holding Vanunu incommuniddo and preparing to try him in secret, or, conversely, whether Vanunu might actually have been the point man in an intentional Israeli government scheme to let its neighbors know about its nuclear capabilities.

The government has called the Sunday Times story "sensationalism" and reiterated its standard claim that it would not be the first to "introduce" nuclear weapons to the Middle East, but it had also made no secret of its concern over Syria's current attempt to gain military parity.

A profusion of rumors have filled the official vacuum: Vanunu has been killed in a staged car accident; he was never kidnapped, but is simply in hiding until the furor dies down; he is having plastic surgery done at a Mossad clinic, before starting a new life with a new face. Just as the rumors reach in every direction, the facts about Vanunu could support either theory.

Student Activist

A Moroccan Jew, he was brought to Israel as a child. After his military service and nine years at his job as a technician in Israel's secret nuclear plant at Dimona in the Negev Desert, Mordechai Vanunu began college part-time. He became involved in student politics and concerned about the plight of the Palestinians living under occupation in the West Bank. He made a speech in Arabic in support of Palestinian rights. He was pictured demonstrating, carrying a placard reading "Israel-Palestine: Two Countries for Two Nations."

Last December Vanunu joined the Israeli Communist Party, a gesture a friend of his described as motivated by his sympathy for Palestinians. By that time, as Vanunu related it to the Sunday Times, he had already been questioned about his political activities by security agents from the Dimona nuclear plant. He was later included in a mass lay-off. In January Vanunu left Israel, for good, he said. He made his way to Australia with pictures and documents about the workings of the Dimona installation. His tale could signify a profound political transformation—or it could be the grooming of an agent for a very sensitive mission. So much the better if, in the process of establishing his leftist credentials, such an agent had established himself as a political activist at Ben Gurion University in Beersheeba.

In Sydney Vanunu happened into a coffee house run by the King's Cross Anglican Church. He became friends with the pastor, converted to Christianity, and began attending parish discussion groups. During one of these, about nuclear arms, Vanunu mentioned that he had worked in Israel's nuclear weapons plant.

Although the Rev. John McKnight, the Anglican priest who befriended and baptized Vanunu, says the Israeli went public with his story because he believed it was an "appropriate response to the nuclear issue today," the story becomes less straightforward at this point. Vanunu's seemingly spontaneous mention in Australia of his work at Dimona does not entirely square with such prior actions as smuggling a camera into the plant, surreptitiously taking photos, then smuggling the film and supporting documents out of Israel.

By strange but probably innocent happenstance, Reverend McKnight had hired as a painter a South American press agent named Guerero with a history of selling spurious photos to news outlets. Guerero attempted to sell Vanunu's story to the Sunday Times and then to the London Sunday Mirror, which reported on Guerero's sales pitch and published a picture of Vanunu on September 28. The Sunday Times had sent a team to Australia and after talking to Vanunu had brought him to London for a month of debriefing.

Vanunu's Disappearance

The events following Vanunu's disappearance from the Mountbatten Hotel in London on September 30 seem to favor the theory that his revelations were unauthorized. The Sunday Times reported Vanunu missing on October 12, a week after it broke the story on Dimona, saying he had told reporters there that he was alarmed at the publication of his picture in the rival Mirror and was going away for a quiet weekend.

At this point, according to Newsweek, Mossad used a woman to lure Vanunu on a European tour and then snatched him from a yacht in the Mediterranean. After a thorough check of passport control posts, Scotland Yard stated that there was no proof that Vanunu left Britain through any of these posts. The Thatcher government is therefore coming under increasing pressure to investigate the possibility that Israeli agents kidnapped him on British soil. The Newsweekreport about the yacht was an exclusive story which might have been planted to cover a potentially embarrassing diplomatic incident for Israel.

In its previous issues, Newsweek has said that Israeli officials "conceded privately that the disclosures were the worst security lapse in Israeli history." Reverend McKnight, who went searching for Vanunu in both England and Israel, said Israeli officials led him to believe that Vanunu was in jail in Israel. Although Israeli detention laws would permit one contact with relatives, Vanunu's father said there had been a long estrangement, beginning when Mordechai turned away from the family's religious orientation. Consequently, Vanunu's father told reporters, he had had no contact with his son, whom he considered a "criminal" who could rot in jail.

The erratic behavior of the Israeli government suggests that it was caught off guard. Reverend McKnight was given an appointment with an advisor to the Prime Minister, but when the priest arrived he was turned away. Before the Sunday Times story appeared, then-Prime Minister Peres warned Israeli editors that they were bound by Israel's official secrets act. Subsequently, censorship was unevenly applied. The English-language Jerusalem Post was permitted to reproduce the Sunday Times article, but censors vetoed two editorials in the major Hebrew-language daily Ha'aretz.

At the end of October, the government reversed itself, loosing the pent-up curiousity called "Vanunumania." Full coverage was permitted of the two press conferences held by Reverend McKnight—he eventually gave up and left Israel—and Prime Minister Shamir made cryptic statements about the government's silence: Israel, he said, would "fulfill all obligations toward her citizens."

Nonetheless, it is also possible that the Israelis are encouraging the extensive discussion of a secret trial to give the impression that it has already taken place. In any event, whether intentionally or not, the details and true extent of Israel's nuclear development have become public knowledge.

Although they have received remarkably little media attention in the US, the revelations about Israel's nuclear arsenal should cause further glitches in a relationship already burdened by a steady stream of scandals involving espionage and technology theft. Those scandals began, ironically enough, in May 1985 with the smuggling from the US to Israel of a large number of nuclear weapons switches, or triggers, called krytons (see box on page 6.)

There has been some talk about including Israel's nuclear program in hearings the new Congress plans to hold on nuclear non-proliferation. Although Israel's nuclear capability has long been tacitly acknowledged, Congress never considered its implications. It is not clear, therefore, whether concern over the newly-reported extent of Israel's nuclear arsenal will overcome pressure from the pro-Israeli lobby to ignore the issue.

Should there be hearings, the Administration might be called upon to clarify its position on Israel as a nuclear weapons state and answer some additional questions: Do Israeli nuclear weapons reinforce the Administration's strategic deployment in the Mediterranean, or are Israeli missiles aimed at US allies in the Middle East? What functions, if any, are assigned to Israel's nuclear weapons in NATO doctrine? Perhaps someone will even bring up for discussion the statement the French scientist, Prof. Francis Perrin, gave to the Sunday Times: "We thought the Israeli bomb was aimed against the Americans, to blackmail the US into helping Israel in a critical situation."

Jane Hunter is editor and publisher of Israeli Foreign Affairs, P.0. Box 19580, Sacramento, CA 95819.