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ASHKELON, ISRAELWe're making our way to Ashkelon in a taxi and Meir Vanunu is feeling playful. In two weeks, his brother Mordechai, the man who spilled Israel's nuclear secrets 18 years ago across the pages of a British newspaper, will walk out of prison a free man. Not quite free. He'll be confined to the 8,000 square miles that make up the Jewish state. He'll be watched 24 hours a day and barred from ever talking publicly about his ordeal. But he'll be out of the tiny metal cell in Ashkelon prison where Meir says he can smell the Mediterranean and has longed more than anything to swim in it. In a few hours, the Vanunu family, torn from the inside by the idealistic deeds of an errant son, will get together for a Passover seder and retell the story of the Jews' journey from captivity to freedom. Meir will talk about his visit with Mordechai in prison that day, but their parents, old and sick from nearly two decades of this affair, will close their ears. Mordechai was his mother's favorite. He grew up in an Orthodox home and was a promising yeshiva student. She could forgive him for betraying Israel's secrets. But the catalog of Mordechai's sins includes a conversion to Christianity. And for that, his parents cut off ties long ago. They won't be reuniting with him now.
We're making our way to Ashkelon in a taxi because prison authorities have approved a visit for Meir on short notice, and it might be the last time he sees his brother behind bars. They'll talk about what to expect on the date of his scheduled April 21 release: their plans to rent an apartment in Tel Aviv and fight in court the post-release restrictions imposed on Mordechai, how to deal with the legions of reporters who will travel to Ashkelon to cover the event. Mordechai, who suffers from the paranoia that must inevitably accompany ordeals like histhe Mossad abduction in Europe, the secret trial, the utter solitude he endured for his first 12 years at Ashkelonwill ask his brother to help him distinguish between the real journalists and the spies and provocateurs he believes Israel will plant in the crowd.
And this cab ride we're taking transports us from one of Meir's worlds to anotherfrom the religious world he and Mordechai grew up in to the gray prison his brother now inhabits. It begins just outside Tel Aviv, in Orthodox Bnei Brak, where he lives with his parents while in Israel, where men wear long black robes and black hats and women cover their hair for modesty. Though it neighbors Israel's raciest metropolis, Bnei Brak is as insular as Jerusalem's most religious neighborhoods. Old men crowd bus stops to solicit money for the poor. On a sidewalk vending machine that offers coffee and hot chocolate, someone has hung a sign saying "Sold to a goybeware."
Meir left this world at 18 to live a secular lifestyle. He's now 48, wiry and good-looking, with dark eyes and dark skin, two years younger than Mordechai. But he keeps getting pulled back into this world because every aspect of his adult lifewhere he lives, what he does, even who he forms relationships withis dictated by the deeds of his older brother. Meir is Mordechai's man-on-the-outside. Of Mordechai's nine siblings, just three have kept in touch with him in prison. Some changed their names to avoid the stigma. Only Meir has immersed himself in the campaign for his brother's release. He lived for years in a London apartment made available by a rich Israeli peace activist, coordinating Mordechai's defense, speaking at rallies and conferences, accepting awards on his brother's behalf. In a way, he has lived the life Mordechai intended when he went public with his information about Israel's secret nuclear plant in Dimona.
Pen pals: A letter from Vanunu to his adoptive parents in Minnesota
photo: Jeff Horwich/Minnesota Public Radio
And here's what happens in the taxi. Meir, giddy about his brother's imminent release, talks to me in English while playing a trick on the driver in Hebrew. He tells him I'm a journalist writing about Mordechai Vanunu, the nuclear technician who worked for eight years at the Dimona facility, whose conscience told him the furtive bomb-building there was wrong, who left Israel for a trip around the world and ended up in the London offices of the Times, where he astonished journalists with descriptions and photographs of Dimona. Meir identifies himself to the driver as my translator and begins besieging him with questions, ostensibly for my report. "What do you think of this Vanunu character?" "But wasn't he just trying to raise public awareness?" "But didn't the world know anyway that Israel had the bomb?" "But wasn't his abduction from Rome illegal?"
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 debriefinghow 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.
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
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 yearsletters 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.
Here's how stubborn. In the 12th year of his solitary confinement, when relatives began worrying about his mental state, when Mordechai would tell visitors that the colors of a newspaper contained secret codes and the announcements over the prison loudspeaker included subliminal messages aimed at brainwashing him, the Ashkelon prison director summoned Mordechai for a meeting. Meir was there, and so was Asher, another Vanunu brother. "It was the first time we could see him without a screen between us, the first time we could embrace," Meir told me. The director was offering to end Mordechai's solitary confinement in exchange for a pledge that he wouldn't talk to other prisoners about Dimona. Mordechai didn't even consider the proposal. "I don't do deals with the devil," he said. Mordechai's obstinacy paid off. The prison director ended his solitary confinement two weeks later with no strings attached.
But on other occasions he has missed opportunities to ease his plight or even end his ordeal. "He won't compromise on his freedom of speech," says Mary Eoloff, a Minnesota woman who has made at least 10 trips to Israel along with her husband, Nick, to visit Mordechai in prison. The Eoloffs are another peculiar chapter in the Vanunu story. Longtime peace activists who retired about 10 years ago, the Catholic couple read about Mordechai in an issue of The Progressive in 1995 and began corresponding with him. "This is what his letters look like," Nick Eoloff tells me in the living room of his home in St. Paul, holding up a lined sheet of paper with tight handwriting and holes where censored words or sentences were cut out. Mordechai numbers his letters. The latest ones received in Minnesota show he has penned more than 2,400 from prison since 1986. Nick Eoloff says Vanunu copies each one by hand and keeps the spares in boxes in his cell for his own uncensored record.
Within three years, the couple had arranged to legally adopt Mordechai in the U.S., gaining the right to visit him in prison. (Only first-degree relatives, lawyers, and a priest are allowed). But to their dismay, the adoption did not result in U.S. citizenship. "We thought he would get citizenship, and then Israel would quickly be willing to let him leave prison and leave the country," Nick Eoloff tells me. "Then we started looking at the INS forms, and they said only an adopted child under 16 gets automatic citizenship."
The more they visited Mordechai in prison, the more they came to understand how slim his chances were for an early release. The first time they traveled to Israel in February 1998, Vanunu had already served two-thirds of his sentence and was eligible for parole. But the parole hearings were little more than a formality. "It was a really demoralizing visit, mainly because of how gray everything was," Mary Eoloff tells me. "Mordechai came in, and he was this old man." He was 43 at the time. Again and again, members of the board rejected his petitions until Vanunu stopped attending the sessions.
He remained defiant. About a year ago, the Eoloffs say, two security officials offered a deal for his early release. In return, Mordechai would sign a pledge never to talk about Dimona, the abduction, or details of his trial. For the first time in 17 years, Vanunu was a pen's stroke away from leaving prison. Again, he refused to bargain. "He has his little dissents," says Nick Eoloff. "Whenever we visit, he's allowed to come out of his cell and wait for us behind a red line that's painted on the ground. And every time we approach, he takes one little step over that line and embraces us."
How will this story end? If Vanunu is allowed out of Israel, the Eoloffs have prepared space for him in their home in St. Paul. He has a small bedroom upstairs with eggshell-colored walls and a cross over his bed. Or he could live in the carpeted basement, with a fireplace and an adjoining bathroom. Mary Eoloff says Mordechai has talked about beginning his new life quietly. "He wants to teach history," she says, "and eventually he would want to live on one of the coasts." Mordechai has apparently cultivated a romantic relationship with a woman through letters and might be interested in getting married. Nick Eoloff says Vanunu has dropped 26 pounds in recent months, hoping to leave prison at the same weight he entered. And though he tells the Eoloffs he'd make the same decisions today as he did 18 years ago, some of his recent letters sound softer. "I've suffered too much," he wrote to his adoptive parents last August. "We must end this case and start the next step in freedom."