- Each day we move closer to a Mideast war that could involve
the use of horrible weapons, even nukes. In this darkest hour since the
1962 Cuban missile crisis, the shining example of one man's courage has
never been more relevant to the cause of peace. That man is Mordechai Vanunu,
former Israeli nuclear technician, and may well be the longest serving
prisoner of conscience anywhere in the world. Daniel Ellsberg recently
referred to him as "the preeminent hero of the nuclear age."
- In September 1986, Mordechai Vanunu was illegally abducted
by agents of the Mossad for revealing to the world press information that
confirmed the existence of Israel's often-denied plutonium separation plant.
The plant is buried eighty feet below ground in the Negev desert, and had
long escaped detection. Since the 1960s it has been used to recover plutonium
from spent fuel rods from the Dimona nuclear reactor, located nearby. The
plant continues to be an integral part of Israel's ongoing nuclear weapons
program. Israel is believed to possess at least 200 nukes.
- Then Prime Minister Shimon Peres ordered Vanunu' s abduction
to silence the whistleblower, and to bring him to trial for allegedly jeopardizing
the securi ty of the state of Israel. But Vanunu's real "crime"
was speaking the truth. And for that he was made to suffer a fate worse
than death: eleven years and five months in solitary confinement. Isolation
in a tiny cell is a well known form of torture, and one that can cause
deep emotional scars and mental impairment. During this period Vanunu was
subjected to constant harassments and humiliations: an obvious attempt
by the Mossad to "break" his will, or drive him over the edge.
Amnesty International described the conditions of his ordeal as "cruel,
inhuman, and degrading."
- Yet, the prisoner held firm as a rock. Nor has Vanunu
since wavered from the position of principle he articulated in the very
beginning: that the only sane path is full disclosure and abolition of
nuclear weapons. From his prison cell Mordechai wrote: "It is a dangerous
illusion to believe they [nuclear weapons] can be defensive....Only peace
between states can promise security."
- The world gained another glimpse of Vanunu's character
in 1998, shortly after his removal from solitary and his placement in the
general prison population. At that time he was queried by Israeli officials
about whether he would agree to remain silent on the nuclear issue, implying
an offer of conditional release. But Vanunu refused. He insisted on his
right to speak freely. And he made it plain that being muzzled on the nuclear
issue was non-negotiable: not an option for his release. Vanunu is currently
starting the seventeenth year of his eighteen year sentence. One of the
causes for which Vanunu risked his life, full disclosure of Israel's nuclear
policies, was briefly realized in February 1999, when a debate of the nuclear
issue occurred on the floor of the Israeli Knesset. The event was short-lived.
After shouting and recriminations, several Arab members of the Knesset
who had sparked the debate were expelled from the chamber. The stormy circumstances
showed the extent of denial that remains to be overcome. But it was a victory,
nonetheless, for those who favor nuclear abolition.
- Over the years the case of Mordechai Vanunu has come
to symbolize the intractable problem of state secrecy that continues to
stymie all efforts toward world nuclear disarmament. This is why Vanunu
has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize every year since1987. Though
his name is a household word in Europe, Australia, and throughout much
of the rest of the world, here in America Vanunu remains almost unknown.
The US press ignores his case because it is an embarrassment to Israel
and to the US government.
- Yet, spotlighting Vanunu for his courage and his witness
would have salutary effects. It would increase public awareness of the
folly of President Bush's current Mideast policies. The problem is Bush's
double standard: one standard for the US and Israel, another for everyone
else. This explains why almost nobody (outside the US) trusts the president
when he says he wants to roll back weapons of mass destruction from the
Mideast. They correctly understand that Bush is not serious. If he were
he would also be pressuring Israel to open its nuclear sites to IAEA inspectors.
Israel remains the only state in the region with nuclear weapons.
- Mark Gaffney is an anti-nuclear activist and the author
of a pioneering 1989 book about Israel's nuclear weapons program: DIMONA,
THE THIRD TEMPLE. THE STORY BEHIND THE VANUNU REVELATION. Mark can be reached
for comment at email@example.com