Israel – atom bomb program part 3 (Vanunu)

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.

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