The recent release on April 22 of Mordechai Vanunu
from an Israeli prison provides an opportunity to challenge the US policy of
supporting Israel's development of nuclear weapons while threatening war against
other Middle Eastern states for simply having the potential for developing such
Vanunu, a nuclear technician at Israel's Dimona nuclear plant, passed along
photographs he had taken inside the plant to the Sunday Times of London
in 1986. His evidence demonstrated that Israel had developed up to two hundred
nuclear weapons of a highly advanced design, making it the world's sixth-largest
nuclear power. For his efforts, agents from the Mossad, Israel's intelligence
service, kidnapped him from Rome and brought him to Israel1 to stand before a secret tribunal that convicted him on charges
of espionage and treason and sentenced him to eighteen years in prison under
Though labeled a spy and a traitor, he was in fact simply a whistle-blower
who became "a martyr to the causes of press freedom and nuclear de-escalation."2 He never received any money for this act of conscience, which
he took upon recognizing that Israel's nuclear program went well beyond its
need for a deterrent and was likely offensive in nature. A former strategic
analyst at the Rand Corporation observed that Vanunu's revelations about Israel's
nuclear program demonstrated that: "Its scale and nature was clearly designed
for threatening and if necessary launching first-use of nuclear weapons against
conventional forces."3 Prior to Vanunu's revelations, many suspected that Israel's
nuclear program was limited to tactical nuclear artillery and naval shells.
Israel is one of just four countries the others being Pakistan, India, and
Cuba that has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. UN Security
Council resolution 1172 urges all countries to become parties of the treaty.4
It is noteworthy that Israel finds whistle-blowing more threatening than actual
spying. None of the half dozen spies convicted in Israel for nuclear espionage
served as much time in prison as has Vanunu.5
Vanunu, who has been referred to by Daniel Ellsberg as "he preeminent
hero of the nuclear era,"6 has been awarded the Sean McBride Peace prize, the Right Livelihood
Award, and an honorary doctorate from a Norwegian university. He has also been
repeatedly nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
The European parliament, former President Jimmy Carter, the Jewish Peace Fellowship,
the Federation of American Scientists, and many other prominent individuals
and organizations have long called for Vanunu's release. By contrast, with few
notable exceptions such as the late Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota
there has been virtually no support in Congress. The four administrations in
office during Vanunu's confinement have been even less supportive. For example,
in response to an inquiry by Tom Campbell, the former Republican Congressman
from California, Clinton 's assistant secretary of State Barbara Larkin claimed
that Vanunu had had a fair trial and was doing well in prison.7
This lack of U.S. support for Vanunu is just one part of the long-standing
US acquiescence of Israel's nuclear program.
Israel has long stated that it would not be the first to introduce nuclear
weapons into the Middle East, which is a rather disingenuous commitment given
that US planes and warships have been bringing nuclear weapons into the region
since the 1950s. Israel is generally believed to have become a nuclear power
by 1969. The newly elected President Richard Nixon and his chief foreign policy
adviser Henry Kissinger privately endorsed Israel's program that year. They
quickly ended the regular US inspections of Israel's Dimona nuclear center.
This was of little consequence, however, since these "inspections"
were pro forma and not taken seriously. (President Lyndon Johnson demonstrated
his lack of concern over the prospects of Israel becoming a nuclear power by
rejecting calls that one of the early major weapons sales to Israel be conditioned
on Israel'signing the NPT.) The Nixon administration went to great lengths to
keep nuclear issues out of any talks on the Middle East. Information on Israeli
nuclear capabilities was routinely suppressed. The United States even supplied
Israel with krytrons (nuclear triggers) and supercomputers that were bound for
the Israeli nuclear program.8
Under the Carter administration, which took the threat of nuclear proliferation
somewhat more seriously than other administrations, the issue of Israel's development
of nuclear weaponry was not raised publicly. When satellite footage of an aborted
nuclear test in South Africa 's Kalahari Desert gave evidence of a large-scale
presence of Israeli personnel at the test site, the Carter administration kept
it quiet.9 Two years later, when a US satellite detected a successful
joint Israeli-South African atomic bomb test in the Indian Ocean, the Carter
administration rushed to squelch initial media reports. According to Joseph
Nye, then-Deputy Under Secretary of State, the Carter administration considered
the Israel's nuclear weapons program a low priority.10
Top officials in the Reagan administration made a conscious effort to keep
information on Israel's nuclear capability from State Department officials and
others who might have concerns over nuclear proliferation issues.11 The senior Bush administration sold at least 1,500 nuclear
"dual-use" items to Israel, according to a report by the General Accounting
Office, despite requirements under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that
the existing nuclear powers like the United States not help another country's
nuclear weapons program "in any way."12
The Israeli media reported that President Clinton wrote rightist Israeli Prime
Minister Benyamin Netanyahu in 1998 pledging that the United States would continue
to protect Israel's nuclear program from international pressure. According to
Haaretz, "he United States will preserve Israel's strategic deterrence
capabilities and ensure that Middle East arms control initiatives will not damage
it in the future. The Clinton letter provides written if secret backup to
the long-standing agreement between Jerusalem and Washington over the preservation
of Israel's nuclear capabilities if Israel maintains its policy of 'ambiguity'
and does not announce publicly that it has the bomb."13
Meanwhile, Congress has for many years made it clear to the Nuclear Regulatory
Commission and other responsible parties that it did not want to have anything
revealed in an open hearing related to Israel's nuclear capability. A major
reason is that there are a number of laws that severely restrict US military
and technical assistance to countries that develop nuclear weapons. Israel is
the largest recipient of US arms exports, which are highly profitable for the
politically influential arms industry.
Outside of Washington, top Israeli nuclear scientists have had open access
to American institutions and many leading American nuclear scientists had extended
visits with their counterparts in Israel, in what has been called "informational
promiscuity" in the seepage of nuclear intelligence.14
In addition, given the enormous costs of any nuclear program of such magnitude,
it would have been very difficult for Israel to develop such a large and advanced
arsenal without the tens of billions of dollars in unrestricted American financial
support. More than simply employing a double standard of threatening perceived
enemies for developing nuclear weapons while tolerating development of such
weapons by its allies, the United States has, in effect, subsidized nuclear
proliferation in the Middle East.
In order to justify the US invasion of Iraq, President George W. Bush, Senator
John Kerry, and others argued that Iraq had an ongoing nuclear weapons program
in violation of UN Security Council resolution 687. (In reality, the United
Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency had determined in 1998 that Iraq's
nuclear program had been completely dismantled and IAEA inspections in the months
immediately prior to the US invasion and exhaustive searches by US forces subsequently
have confirmed that assessment.) What both Republican and Democratic leaders
have failed to observe, however, is that Israel remains in violation of UN Security
Council resolution 487, which calls on Israel to place its facilities at Dimona
under IAEA trusteeship. Despite bipartisan efforts in Congress to seek repeal
of that resolution, it is still legally binding. Bush and Kerry, however, believe
that UN Security Council resolutions, like nuclear nonproliferation, do not
apply to US allies.
Within Israel, however, there was much debate among Israeli elites regarding
the wisdom of developing nuclear weapons. Some Israeli leaders ranging from
former Labor Prime Ministers Golda Meir and Yigal Allon to former Likud Defense
Minister Raful Eitan argued that a nuclear Israel would increase the possibility
of Arab states developing weapons of mass destruction and launching a first
strike against Israel.15 Give the country's small size, Israel might not have a credible
second-strike capability. There is also the fact that most of Israel's potential
nuclear targets are close enough so that a shift in wind could potentially send
a radioactive cloud over Israel.
Furthermore, while one could make a case for an Israeli nuclear deterrent up
through the mid-1970s, Israel's qualitative advantage in conventional forces
relative to any combination of Arab states developed subsequently resulting
in large part from a prodigious amount of taxpayer-funded arms transfers from
the United States would appear to weaken the case for a nuclear weapons development.
Furthermore, Israel has an extensive biological and chemical weapons program
that far surpasses those of any potential hostile power and combined with
vastly superior delivery systems would constitute a more-than-adequate deterrent.
Vanunu was forced to remain in solitary confinement until 1998, when ongoing
pressure from human rights groups forced the Israelis to end his segregation,
though he was still not allowed to talk with fellow prisoners. Amnesty International,
for example, observed that the prolonged isolation of Vanunu constituted cruel,
inhuman, and degrading treatment and violated international human rights law.16 The eleven and a half years in solitary confinement has
reportedly taken a psychological toll, raising concerns that he may not be a
credible voice in the cause of nuclear nonproliferation upon his release.
It appears, however, that Israel's U.S.-backed rightist government may not
give him a chance. On March 9, Israeli Attorney General Mordechai Mazuz said
that Vanunu's release from prison "will create a significant danger to
state security" and that there will likely be major restrictions placed
upon his movements and what he can say without the risk of returning to prison.17 Though the Moroccan-born Vanunu had decided to leave Israel
prior to his 1986 kidnapping, he had converted to Christianity during an extended
stay in Australia the previous year, and has stated that he would like to emigrate
to the United States, the Israeli government will reportedly bar him from leaving
Like Israel, the United States has acknowledged its willingness to use nuclear
weapons against non-nuclear adversaries. And, like in Israel, there is an obsession
with secrecy that allows the government to get away with dangerous and destabilizing
nuclear policies that risk a nuclear catastrophe. It is not surprising, then,
that the United States has failed to challenge the Israeli government's policy
toward this courageous nuclear whistle-blower.
As Ellsberg has observed, "he cult and culture of secrecy in every nuclear
weapons state has endangered and continues to threaten the survival of humanity.
Vanunu's challenge to that wrongful and dangerous secrecy must be joined worldwide."
The woman who lured Vanunu was an American working for the Mossad.
The Sunday Times, December 27, 1992.
Daniel Ellsberg, "Mordechai Vanunu's Meaning
for the Nuclear Age," April 2004.
UN Security Council Resolution 1172 (1998), article 13.
P. R. Kumaraswarmy, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists,
Ellsberg, op. cit.
Seymour Hersch, The Sampson Option, New York: Random House,
1991, p. 209-214.
Ibid., p. 268.
Cited in Ibid., p. 283.
Ibid., p. 291
. Jane Hunter, "A Nuclear Affair," Middle East
International, 24 June 1994, pp. 12-13.
Aluf Benn, "A President's Promise: Israel Can Keep its
Nukes," Ha'aretz, May 14, 2000.
Helena Cobban, " Israel's Nuclear Game: The U.S. Stake,"
World Policy Journal, Summer 1988, pp. 427-428.
David Twersky, "Is Silence Golden? Vanunu and Nuclear Israel,"
Tikkun, (Vol 3, No. 1).
Amnesty International, October 1991.
Gideon Alon, "AG Mazuz: Vanunu significant danger to state
security." Ha'aretz, March 9, 2004.
Yossi Melman, "Security sources: Vanunu applied for passport,"Ha'aretz,
March 10, 2004.
Ellsberg, op. cit.