Campaign to Free Vanunu and for a Nuclear Free Middle East

Mordechai Vanunu worked as a nuclear technician at Dimona, Israel's nuclear instalation from 1976 to 85. In 1986 he revealed the facts of Israel's nuclear weapons programme to the world, through the London Sunday Times. Based on his evidence, experts concluded that Israel had stockpiled up to 200 warheads, making it the world's sixth largest nuclear power. On 30th September, days before his information was published, Vanunu was drugged and kidnapped from Rome by Israeli agents. He was tried in total secrecy, charged with "treason" and "espionage" and sentenced to 18 years imprisonment. Since then he has been kept in complete isolation in conditions described by Amnesty International as "cruel, inhuman or degrading". The European Parliament has repeatedly condemend "the behaviour of the Israel authorities" and called for his release. Vanunu has been honoured by international organisations and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987, 1988, 1989 and again in 1993 and 1995. "I have sacrifices my freedom and risked my life in order to expose the danger of nuclear weapons which threatens this whole region. I have acted on behalf of all citizens and all of humanity."

by David Polden

The US was privileged to observe the building of Israelís nuclear weapons factory at Dimona in the late 50s and early 60s from its U2 spy planes passing overhead. On the basis of photos they took the CIA concluded that, "Israel was on its way to becoming the 5th nuclear power," as it reported to the Nuclear Energy Commissional Committee in 1960.

Tackled by the US, Ben-Gurion told the Knesset that a nuclear reactor was being constructed in the Negev with French assistance, but solely for peaceful ends. Peres embellished this in 1963 by describing the plant as for water desalination, "intended to turn the Negev into a garden."

The US insisted on having Dimona inspected to confirm its purely civil role, making arms sales to Israel conditional on such inspections. Israel agreed, with 2 provisos: that the inspections be carried out not by the International Atomic Agency (IAEA) but by a US-chosen team of scientists: and that the inspections by arranged in advance.

Under these conditions the annual inspections rapidly descended into farce. Before the first, 1961, inspection, according to Hersh, a false control room was constructed at Dimona to disguise the production of weapons-grade plutonium at the plant. Vanunu told the Sunday Times of a false wall built to hide te service lifts to the underground floors where plutonium was seperated and bomb parts manufactured. Each year the inspection team dutifully reported finding no evidence of bomb manufacture. But the inspectors were soon complaining that proper access was not being given. This culminated in the 1969 team submitting a written complaint that it "could not guarantee that there was no weapon-related work at Dimona in view of the limitations imposed by the Israelis on its inspection procedures." This rider clearly nullified the whole point of the inspection. But far from the US demanding full inspection rights for it inspectors, it ended inspections after 1969. If the real purpose of the inspections was to give Israel a clean bill of nuclear health they had outlived their usefulness.

In any case, the US government could by now have no doubt that Israel had nuclear weapons. In 1968 a secret CIA National Intelligence Estimate concluded that Israel had manufactured at least 4 nuclear warheads. According to Hersh, President Johnson was presented with the estimate by CIA Director Richard Helms in person; Johnson ordered Helms to "bury" it and not even show it to Defense Secretary McNamara. When the report reached the New York Times front page in July 1970, "nobody cared" as Hersh puts it.

Also instructive is the US reaction to Vanunuís 1986 revelations. The UN General Assembly adopted a resolution calling for the UN to investigate Israelís nuclear programme and only the US joined Israel in voting against it. The US governmentís scientific advisers accepted Vanunuís evidence, only revising downwards the estimate of the number of Israelís nuclear warheads based on this evidence. However there was no move to cut off foreign or military aid, in spite of the 1976 "Symington Amendment" to the Arms Control Act. This made it illegal to provide US foreign aid or military credits to nations that sold or received nuclear reprocessing or enrichment materials, equipment or technology without accepting IAEA safeguards.

But this amendment is a toothless tiger as far as Israel is concerned, for Israel had long since received such materials. Moreover the Amendment made provision for the President to override it ifthe termination of such aid would be damaging to US national security. These limitations are perhaps not accidental given the Senator Symington was himself a strong supporter of Israel having the bomb. The only country the Amendment has been invoked against is Pakistan, twice.

Why did the US take no effective steps to try to stop the Israeli bomb, when this represented an immense blow to hopes of preventing nuclear proliferation? There certainly seems no evidence that the US helped or wanted Israel to the develop the bomb.

Israel depends for its very survival on the immense amount of economic and military aid it gets from the US, so the US has a vast degree of leverage over Israel. Why hasnít it used it in this case?

Strategic considerations? The US has need of a staunch ally in the Middle East, originally to counterbalance Soviet influence on such countries as Egypt, and latterly as a bulwark against Islamic enemies such as Iran, Iraq, Libya and Syria. The US does have Islamic allies, notably Saudi Arabia and Turkey, but the Shah of Iranís overthrow might be seen as showing such alliances unreliable. Nevetheless, has Israel the option of rejecting the US as allies? Where else could it turn? The relation between the US and Israel often seems that of a small tail wagging a very large dog.

Domestic political considerations? The US would have had to squeeze Israel hard to have made it give up the nuclear option. And such pressure would have been electorally unpopular in the US, both among the powerful Jewish lobby and more generally among the US public, among whom I suspect Israel tends to be seen as an outpost of Western civilsation surrounded by a sea of Islamic terrorists. And how could such pressure be justified without admitting Israelís nuclear pretensions?

So why has the US colluded for several decades with Israelís denial of having nuclear weapons?

This is an easy question to answer: if the US admitted it knew of Israel having nuclear weapons the hypocrisy of its approach to non-proliferation, especially in the Middle East, would become manifest. And any pretense to being an honest broker in the peace process between Israel and its Arab neighbours and the Palestinians would be blown sky-high. It would also be seen as an unfriendly act by Israel, making it impossible for it to continue its pretense to not being a nuclea power.

Sources: Cochran, Thomas: National Security, in Voices for Vanunu; Campaign to Free Vanunu, 1997. Cohen, Yoel: Nuclear Ambiguity: the Vanunu affair; Sinclair-Stevenson, 1992. Hersh, Seymour: The Samson Option: Israel, America and the Bomb; Faber & Faber, 1991

Write to Mordechai Vanunu
Mordechai has now been writing and answering letters. He would be pleased to receive your cards, letters, books (especially literary classics and books on philosophy) or magazines (news, politics, nature). Do bear in mind, however, that his mail may take a long time to reach him.
Address:Mordechai Vanunu, Ashkelon Prison, Ashkelon, Israel.

contact "Free Vanunu" at
89 Borough High Street
England, UK.
Tel: (00 44) 0171 378 9324
Fax (00 44)0171 357 9685
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