Four years ago Israeli nuclear whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu was released from jail having served 18 years inside. Yet this month the Israeli government renewed, for the fifth time, an order confining him to Jerusalem, where he is under constant surveillance, banned from talking to foreigners and shunned by Israeli society. He lives with no work, income, home or support. A virtual prisoner.
What crime did Vanunu commit to so incense Israeli government and society? He was the whistleblower that alerted the world to Israel's secret possession of over 200 nuclear weapons. A ‘crime' that others have seen as worthy of the Nobel peace prize - for which he has been nominated over five times.
Vanunu's life story reads like a thriller. Between 1976 and 1985 he worked as a junior technician at the Negev Nuclear Research Center - Israel's nuclear weapons factory. He quit in 1985 and in 1986 left Israel to travel the world. During his travels, he met a freelance journalist who worked for the Sunday Times newspaper and revealed to him the facts of Israel's nuclear weapons programme.
In September 1986, days before his information was published, Vanunu was lured into a 'honeytrap' by an undercover agent with Mossad, Israel's feared secret service. Operating under the name of Cindy and masquerading as an American tourist, she persuaded him to fly to Rome with her on a holiday. In Rome, Mossad agents drugged him and smuggled him to Israel on a freighter. Once there he was tried in total secrecy, charged with treason and espionage and sentenced to 18 years imprisonment.
Vanunu served his time, including more than 11 years in solitary confinement in conditions that Amnesty characterized as "cruel, inhuman and degrading". Since his release has tried repeatedly to leave Israel and start a new life. But asylum applications have been rejected by Norway, Sweden, Ireland and Canada. The reason why was indicated by recently released Norwegian government documents showing that they rejected his application despite initial enthusiasm (he was offered a university job, the support of the previous Prime Minister and awarded a Norwegian peace prize) after Israel exerted diplomatic pressure on them.
Why won't Israel let Vanunu go? The official argument is that Vanunu possesses confidential information about the Israeli weapons programme that he could publicise if allowed to leave the country. This despite the time elapsed and his junior role at Negev. Ray Kidder of the US's nuclear weapons programme refutes this idea: "I am ready to challenge any official assertion that Mr Vanunu possesses any technical nuclear information not already made public." Also following this logic means Vanunu will remain a security risk forever, and his restrictions will never be lifted.
The more likely explanation is that Israel doesn't want any more attention paid to its nuclear weapons. Despite Vanunu's revelations, Israel still officially continues its doublethink policy of nuclear ambiguity, ie neither acknowledging nor denying that it possesses any such weapons. So today most Israeli news reports of referring to nuclear weapons will cite "foreigner's reports" or "allegations" that Israel has nuclear weapons. This policy even survived a recent very public slip by prime minister Ehud Olmert who, in an interview with German TV, said "Iran, openly, explicitly and publicly, threatens to wipe Israel off the map. Can you say that this is the same level, when they are aspiring to have nuclear weapons, as America, France, Israel and Russia?"
The rationale for the policy is initially difficult to understand - surely nuclear weapons cannot magically deter others if their existence isn't acknowledged? However a rather large clue to why the policy exists is the fact that a US legal prohibition exists on granting aid to countries with unauthorised weapons of mass destruction. If Israel formally acknowledges their WMD they would risk losing more than US$2 billion a year in military and other aid from Washington.
Whatever the rationale the effect of Israel's 'allowed hypocrisy' both regionally and in the international arena is to fuel existing tensions and to stifle progress on creating a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East, an acknowledged crucial first step towards creating a nuclear weapons-free world.
Surely all these years on, it's now time for Israel to stop wasting effort punishing Vanunu and instead focus on the task of creating a more secure Middle East.
For more on Mordechai Vanunu, visit his website.