The Spy Who Blew The Whistle

Mordechai Vanunu spilled Israel's nuclear secrets and was jailed for 18 years. Get ready for the fallout.

Meir shifts his gaze back and forth between the driver and me, translating his answers into English, cutting him off, embellishing and editorializing, then firing more questions in Hebrew. "I used to love doing this," he tells me. "In the first few years, whenever I'd come back to Israel, I'd engage people without telling them he's my brother." The opinions he heard were almost always uniform. Mordechai was a traitor. He signed a secrecy agreement when he began working at Dimona. He exposed Israel to international pressure by revealing that up to 200 nuclear bombs had been built at the facility. He jeopardized the one insurance policy the Jewish state has against annihilation.

Only this time, there's a twist. The two men in the taxi talk about the aftermath of the London Times debriefing—how a female Mossad agent known as Cindy lured Mordechai from London to Rome, where he was drugged and whisked to Israel by sea. It's a story of disastrous naïveté but also endearing naïveté. The driver, however, seems to know more about Mordechai's story than other Israelis. "The security establishment feeds Israeli newspapers all kinds of fabrications," Meir taunts him. "How do you know that what you read about Vanunu is true?" The man's response is a jarring reminder of how small Israel is. A 25-year navy veteran, our driver reveals he was on the ship that secretly brought Mordechai back to Israel. "I have some firsthand knowledge," he says.

Israel fears Mordechai Vanunu, even 18 years on. Meir tells me a story that demonstrates just how much. He's invited to attend a Knesset hearing where lawmakers and security officials will discuss the restrictions to be imposed on Mordechai after his release. There, Meir comes face to face with Yehiel Horev, the security czar whom the Vanunus regard as Mordechai's nemesis.

Vanunu in an Israeli police van in 1986, flashing a message written on his palm: ‘Vanunu was hijacked in Rome 30.9.86.’
Vanunu in an Israeli police van in 1986, flashing a message written on his palm: ‘Vanunu was hijacked in Rome 30.9.86.’

Horev's very name was a secret in Israel until it was published in Haaretz in 2000. Now, Horev goes to the podium to explain Israel's don't-admit-don't-deny policy of nuclear ambiguity, which has allowed the Jewish state to develop nuclear weapons while avoiding international sanctions.

"Nuclear ambiguity is like an empty glass," Horev tells the committee. "Every time someone reveals another detail about our nuclear option, a drop is added to the glass. At this moment, 18 years after Vanunu's disclosures, the glass is completely full. Another drop and our ambiguity will be impossible to maintain."

Nuclear family: Vanunu and the Eoloffs during their visit to his prison
photo: Minnesota Public Radio and the Eoloffs
The threat of overflow couldn't come at a worse time for Israel. With Libya and Iraq having been disarmed and Iran beginning to accept limited nuclear inspections, Arab states are lobbying for Israel's nukes to be ferreted out with the same vigor as Arab WMDs. An American law even bars the United States from providing foreign aid to a country that, with no international oversight, is developing nuclear weapons (Israel receives nearly $3 billion in annual U.S. aid—more than any other country). But Israel's silent understanding with the U.S. has always provided a shield: As long as the Jewish state can maintain the posture of ambiguity, Washington will not press for disarmament.

One big concern for Israel is that Mordechai Vanunu now has the stature to mount a campaign, even single-handedly, to strip the Jewish state of its nukes. He is eager to leave Israel for the U.S. and never come back. But Israeli officials envision campus speaking tours and D.C. demonstrations. The more an insider like Vanunu talked publicly about the goings on at Dimona, the harder it would be for the United States to continue ignoring evidence that Israel has nuclear weapons.

"Ambiguity has worked well for us," a former government official who dealt in intelligence matters tells me. We're sitting in the lobby of a Jerusalem hotel, discussing whether Israel's High Court of Justice will, in hearing an appeal Mordechai is filing, uphold or overturn the restrictions imposed on Vanunu. Like other Israelis in government and the security establishment, the former official is willing to talk about Israel's "nuclear option" without confirming that the country has the bomb. He compares Vanunu to the Rosenbergs, who were executed in the '50s for passing America's nuclear secrets to the Soviets. And he says that if Vanunu is determined to give away more information, Israel has the right to preempt his action. "Imagine a CIA agent announces he's going to reveal the names of U.S. agents all over the world. Wouldn't your government do something in advance to stop him?" the former official says. But if the state cannot prove that Vanunu intends again to violate the secrecy agreement he signed at Dimona, the travel ban will probably be lifted, he predicts.

How can judges know what's in the head of a man who has been in prison for 18 years? Who followed a woman to Rome at age 31 and got locked in a dungeon to age 49? Prosecutors say clues are contained in the letters Vanunu sent family members and supporters over the years—letters that were censored and photocopied on their way out of prison. "My understanding is that he says clearly he intends to continue telling what he knows and that he has more secrets to divulge," the former official tells me. Supporters dispute this claim, though certainly, they concede, Vanunu is a stubborn man.

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