After eliminating the Iraqi nuclear threat in 5731/1981, Israel’s nuclear program had a major setback a few years later.
In mid-September 5746/1986, Mossad director, Nachum Admoni, received a phone call that shocked him like a nuclear blast. At the other end of the line was newspaper mogul, Robert Maxwell, who on the side used to undertake high-level diplomacy for Israel. This time information had been dumped into his lap. A Columbian freelancer had offered one of his papers, The Sunday Mirror, the news story of the century – unequivocal photographic evidence that Israel was building the bomb! The freelancer’s source of information was a technician who had worked in the Dimona nuclear facilities.
“What is the name of this technician?” Admoni blurted out.
“Vanunu. Mordechai Vanunu.”
“Where is he now?”
“Sydney, Australia, I think.”
“I will call you back!”
The Israeli Prime Minister, Shimon Peres, immediately ordered that every step must be taken to “secure the situation” and the Mossad sprang into action.
Vanunu was born in 5714/1954 to observant Sefardi parents in Marrakech, Morocco. In 5723/1963, growing anti-Jewish violence forced his family to move to Israel and they settled in Beer Sheva. Like thousands of others, Vanunu was drafted into the Israeli army in which he became a sergeant of a mine-sweeping unit in the Golan. Afterwards, he tried to acquire an academic education but, after failing two exams in a physics course at Tel Aviv University, he gave up and began searching for a job. He was twenty-one and at a loose end.
After spotting an advertisement offering technical work in “Kamag,” the “Kirya le-Mechkar Garini” (Nuclear Research Center) in Dimona, he jumped at the opportunity. After a lengthy security check that included searching personal questions, such as whether he had a criminal record, took drugs, and his political leanings, Vanunu underwent a pressure-cooker training course in physics, chemistry, mathematics and English. Forty-five applicants took the final exam and Vanunu was one of the thirty-nine who passed.
In February 5737/1977, Vanunu began commuting every evening to his secret job in Dimona. First, he signed a pledge that he would reveal none of the facility’s secrets, not even to his fellow workers, under pain of a fifteen- year prison sentence. Incidentally, one of the perks of his new job was exemption from Israel’s irksome annual month of reserve duty in the army.
In August, Vanunu began his first shift as a menahel mishmeret (shift manager) from 11:30 p.m. to 8:30 a.m. every night.
However, Vanunu’s personality underwent a dramatic change during the next few years. The first stage of his metamorphosis was the utter rejection of his observant upbringing to the extent that he practically cut himself off from his parents’ home. Then the Lebanon War of 5742/1982 changed his political way of thinking. Until this time, he had been a staunch, anti-Arab, right-winger. Now he became an extreme leftist, going out of his way to make Arab friends, trying to join the Israeli Communist Party, and was quoted as protesting, “Stop oppressing the Arabs!”
For some reason, Israel’s security services never put two and two together and Vanunu continued in his topsecret job. In November 5736/1985, Vanunu was finally warned to curb his behavior and, when he refused, he was dismissed together with 180 other workers fired to trim Dimona’s labor costs. His security file recorded that he had “left- wing and pro-Arab beliefs.” Back on the streets, Vanunu set off on the course followed by tens-ofthousands of other Israeli youngsters, in search of their souls. He set off to the exotic Far East and, by May, he was hanging out on the shores of Sydney, Australia, still searching for meaning in his life. One Friday night, he was attracted like a moth to the beckoning lights of St. John’s Anglican Church. The priest in charge remembers that “Mordy came in; he looked around, talked to me, and we became friends.” Two months later, Vanunu took the fatal plunge and converted.
Now the time was ripe for him to betray the people he had rejected. During his long night shifts in Dimona, Vanunu had done a little work of his own and surreptitiously photographed the secret underground halls where Israel was manufacturing its bombs. Meanwhile, the film sat in his pocket like a time-bomb and Vanunu was undecided how to proceed. Oscar Guerrero, a Columbian freelancer was out of work and had turned his hand to painting buildings. After Vanunu met him painting the church fence, the two men became fast friends and when Guerrero heard about Vanunu’s photos, he was convinced that the story would bring in enough funds to last them a lifetime and would be the “sale of the scoop of the century.” Guerrero contacted several leading publications, offering them the sensational story. Newsweek magazine and local Australian papers were convinced that the story was a bluff but the British Sunday Times smelled a good story and sent an investigative reporter, Peter Hounam, to Australia to check it out.
Hounam had a degree in physics. Impressed by what he heard and saw, he offered Vanunu $50,000 for the story, on condition that Guerrero be struck out of the deal. In London, Vanunu handed over sixty photographs he had taken inside Machon 2, a secret underground building that looked like a nondescript twofloor warehouse – from the outside. Vanunu told them that, hidden underneath, were six underground levels where 150 technicians spent their time extracting weapon-grade plutonium from spent Uranium rods. Vanunu’s photos of laboratories, control rooms and models of bombs, revealed that Israel was much further ahead in the nuclear race than anyone had thought possible.
Angry at being cut out of the deal, Guerrero went for advice to a former member of the Australian Security and Intelligence Service (ASIS) and told him the story. The ASIS man contacted his former boss who, in turn, informed the Israeli Embassy, and the Embassy tipped off the Mossad. Meanwhile, Guerrero raced to England and made his own offer to the Sunday Mirror, owned by Robert Maxwell, and Maxwell, too, promptly tipped off the Mossad. When the Sunday Mirror published Guerrero’s story, Maxwell’s paper claimed, in order to shield Israel, that Guerrero was a liar and cheat and that his whole story was a hoax.
Meanwhile, Peres summoned a secret meeting with the editors of Israeli newspapers, begging them to keep the story as low-key as possible. When news of this was leaked to The Sunday Times, it convinced them that Vanunu’s story was true, despite the vociferous denial by the Israeli ambassador.
To be doubly certain of the facts, the paper had Vanunu interviewed by British nuclear physicist, Dr. Frank Barnaby. The Mossad now had the job of catching the horse that had bolted from its stall before even more sensitive information was breached. This was a tricky project since Israel did not want to jeopardize their diplomatic relations with Britain by mounting a kidnapping on British soil. The Sunday Times tried to protect Vanunu by shunting him to secret addresses, known only to two of its reporters. Jewish volunteers armed with Vanunu’s photo scoured London’s hotels and boarding houses in search of him, claiming that he was a missing relative.
On September 30th, Vanunu mysteriously phoned The Sunday Times, informing them that he was “going to leave the city” and would be back in three days; that was the last they ever heard of him. He vanished off the face of the globe for forty days, until November 9th, when the Israeli cabinet secretary, Elyakim Rubinstein, announced, “Mordechai Vanunu is legally under arrest in Israel, in accordance with a court order, following a hearing in which a lawyer of his choice was present.”
No one knew how the Mossad had captured him until Vanunu was taken to a pre-trial hearing in Yerushalayim. As his police van crawled up to the district court, Vanunu pressed his hand against its window. Scrawled on his palm, in black ink, was the secret of his arrest: “I WAS HIJACKED IN ROME ITL 30.9.86 AT 21.00 CAME TO ROME ON B.A. FLIGHT 504.”
To lure Vanunu out of England, a Mossad operative had struck up a friendship with him and arranged to meet him in Rome. Vanunu had flown in a British Airways flight on September 30th and, after reaching his friend’s apartment, he was jumped by three Israeli operatives and injected with a powerful drug. Later that night, he was carted off to the coast in an ambulance where a speedboat picked him up and transferred him to a waiting freighter. Three days later, he was dragged to Haifa.
While Vanunu was at sea, The Sunday Times announced his story for the first time with the huge headline: “REVEALED: THE SECRETS OF ISRAEL’S NUCLEAR ARSENAL.”
Vanunu was charged with treason and espionage and sentenced to eighteen years’ imprisonment. After sitting in solitary confinement for eleven years, having contact with no one, except guards, immediate family and a priest, who spoke to him through a thick metal screen, he was moved to a less restrictive cell in 5758/1998, after international protest.
Vanunu was released in April 5764/2004, with severe restrictions to his movement and speech, including the condition that he must remain in Israel. Vanunu remains unrepentant and the authorities are having a hard time keeping him in line. Vanunu himself is looking forward to the day when his deadly knowledge becomes outdated enough to allow him to leave Israel and start a new life.