in WorldAffairs

A Head Unbowed.

I must confess that with the dizzying number of causes, campaigns and events in the world to be active about – enough to keep a brigade of activists busy for a lifetime, the story of Mordechai Vanunu did not get the personal attention it deserved. Even within the relatively limited scope of Israel/Palestine and the Middle East, Vanunu may have been briefly mentioned, his actions drawing passing remarks. The strength of his courage, the integrity of his conscience all unrecognised.

All this changed with the obligatory fifteen minutes of fame that he has been accorded today and over the coming weeks. For those that do not know what the all this is about a short primer:

Mordechai Vanunu is a jewish moroccan imigrant to Israel (although he has since converted to Christianity), he worked as an engineer within the Israeli defence machinery from 1976 to 1985 during which time he was exposed to the extent of Israel’s covert nuclear programme. Rumours abounded at the time about whether Israel was acquiring nuclear weapons, if so what was their capability – to further compound this, the Israeli government refused to sign up to the Nuclear Prolifiration Treaty, that obligates signatories to inspections and some level of accountability.

Vanunu went public with his inside information, exposing the extent of Israel’s nuclear arsenal and program. He did it for neither profit nor fame. He said at the time he acted on his conscience – making a stand for the global eradication of nuclear arms. A position he still maintains today.

This percieved treachery resulted in his kidnap by Israeli agents in Rome, abduction to Israel, a secret trial and a prison sentence of 18 years – 10 years of which he spent in solitary confinement. His treatment within confinement was draconian and brutal, attested by various campaigns that took up his cause.

After 18 years in prison he was finally released today, his head unbowed despite the efforts of government to break his spirit.

His release sees a convergence of varying public (domestic and international) opinion. Broadly, there are those who recognise him as a hero for peace whilst others see him as a traitor. On the supportive side, there are representives of the various anti-nuclear groups that campaigned for his release because the object of his revelations were nuclear weapons. There are those that supported him personally because he is seen as a prisoner of conscience – acting on his beliefs (some might add, his civic duty) regardless of what the object of his revelations were. There were also those who desperately believe him to be a traitor, jeopardising the security of his adopted country by reckless publication of information given in trust. A small minority extend this feeling further by labelling him ungrateful towards the country that gave him safe sanctuary and access to opportunity. I also found those that cared little for any fact other than he broke the law of the land ( a quite serious thing – if life was only about law!), they feel that he should have been punished to the full extent of the law – no questions asked. They generally feel his crime was poorly punished – perhaps they wished he had been summarily executed for treason – the issue of truth and accountability goes right out

Unapologetic and as determined as ever, Mordechai Vanunu is now a free man, or is he?. Not exactly – the current Israeli administration – built from the same core of paranoid and idealogical off shoots of the militaristic elite of zionists – have applied a number of restrictions on him. He cannot travel abroad, his movements are restricted to certain areas of Israel, he cannot give interviews without permission nor indeed speak to any foreigners (without permission from the authorities). How is society best served by this?. All this despite his statement that he has no further information to divulge- what good would it do? The Israeli hawks would have moved to cover their tracks to neutralise any sensitive information that he publicised at the time.

In any case, the story of Mordechai Vanunu deserved my attention and so I looked into it. Primarily to understand the background to why his revelations were so damning and controversial, in addition, I wanted to profile the integrity of the person and in doing so, improve my view of how the world could be.

Since its formation in 1948 through a much documented partition of Palestine (under the control of the British – by consent of the League of Nations), the State of Israel has been fanatical about its security. Seeing itself as an oasis of democracy and civilisation in an ocean of brutality, repression and Arabness (a word here that implies the zenophobia held by many of the European jews who later went on to form the leadership of the new state – scions of which still control the power in Israel today). It undertook a massive militarisation programme, still persisting today. Compulsory national service and a religious basis that puts victimisation of the jewish people at the core of their collective psyche (and by definition the defence by jewish people against victimisation).

The paranoia that the majority of Israelis – already one of the most politicised populations in the world, feel towards their Arab neighbours guarantees support for the fundamentalist policies of the main political parties. It appears that if a party cannot deliver lasting peace, it should deliver security at any cost. If this cost includes the oppression and subjugation of an entire people , so be it.

It is against this backdrop that Mordechai Vanunu made his very significant revelations. Effectively telling the world that Israel – generally believed to have a powerful army, had secret nuclear weapons. The danger posed by this fact is awesome. Acquiring nuclear weapons used to be a defensive strategy. You did not actually have to have nuclear weapons – the knowledge that you were acquiring them (or possibly had some) would act as a deterrent from aggression from your enemies. That was the basis of the Cold war. Acquire them so you did not have to use them. Because,of course, no one in their right mind would ever call your bluff and risk nuclear attack and its hellish consequence. But without publicising the fact that you are acquiring such weapons, the objective of deterrence is lost. There then appears to be only one possible motive for such secret acquisition of these Weapons of Mass Destruction – the sudden, strategic and decisive use of these weapons under attack.

It would seem to me that an attack by an aggressor whom you know to be armed is preferable to one by an attacker who you did not know to be armed – let alone armed with such a devastating weapon. Given the fact that Israel’s immediate neighbours and those that it deemed to pose the most serious threat to its security are all non nuclear states, it is undoubtable that Israel is prepared to respond with a nuclear strike even though it was not attacked with a nuclear weapon. This presents the question of what level of attack would justify a nuclear response. Given the volatility of the Middle East political mixture and the explosive addition of religious fundamentalism in mainstream Israeli politics – the trigger for using its nuclear capability cannot be reliably gauged.

At the end of this , the situation remains little changed. Israel is still in defiance of a multitude of UN resolutions regarding its occupation, its militarisation (even in the face of economic downturns) continues unabated (financed principally by US military aid – in excess of $3 billion a year). It still has a nuclear programme, which is still unmonitored. There is still little transparency or accountability. In fact with the new War on Terror, there is significantly less transparency or accountability than in 1986 when Vanunu was imprisoned!

What do you think?