Israel's nuclear spy is out on parole.

What the foreign papers are saying.
April 22 2004 4:57 PM

Vanunu Verbiage

Israel's nuclear spy is out on parole.

Mordechai Vanunu walked out of an Israeli prison Wednesday afternoon after serving nearly 18 years for revealing Israel's nuclear secrets to the London Sunday Times in 1986. During a ceremony outside the prison attended by both supporters and protesters, Vanunu defiantly reiterated, "I am proud and happy to do what I did." Using information gleaned as a technician at Israel's Dimona Reactor, Vanunu exposed the extent of the nation's nuclear program—much larger than most had thought—and brought Israel's unofficial status as a nuclear power into sharp relief.

Vanunu's release garnered extensive press attention in Israel and the U.K. and renewed interest in Israel's unusual situation as a "secret" nuclear power. The country has always adopted a stance of what it calls "strategic ambiguity," neither acknowledging nor denying its nuclear abilities. While the British media put Vanunu in a mostly sympathetic light, his home country press expressed little love for the parolee , who has renounced Judaism, refuses to speak Hebrew, and says he intends to move to the United States as soon as he can. Several commentators focused on the impractical terms of Vanunu's release, which forbid him from speaking to foreigners or leaving Israel for at least a year. Israeli officials maintain that his now-dusty knowledge still poses a security risk to the country's nuclear program. An analysis in the Jerusalem Post called the conditions of his release "ridiculous and impossible to enforce." The paper suggested that Vanunu faces two choices: Speak out now and return to prison, or succeed in "slipping out of the country." The Post argued that Vanunu poses a double threat, not only for the Israeli nuclear secrets that he may or may not possess but also for the damaging lies he could tell: "Should he say a team of Korean-speaking, one-armed dwarfs are assembling hydrogen bombs, the world will say: 'Really?! Wow!' "

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An editorial in Hatzofe scolded the government for releasing Vanunu at all, suggesting that he should have been placed in administrative detention as soon as he walked out of prison. His freedom, Hatzofe suggested, will lead to a "Vanunu circus" (translation courtesy BBC Monitoring). Ha'aretz's Reuven Pedatzur also veered against Vanunu and begged the media to leave the man alone: "Don't turn him into a cultural hero." In the Jerusalem Post, Uri Dan went further, declaring, "Vanunu is in fact a traitor. He endangered—and, I would argue, continues to endanger—the security of the Jewish state."

Taking the opposite view in a Ha'aretz analysis piece, Aluf Benn suggested that Vanunu has already served his purpose. "More than any other person, Mordechai Vanunu managed to pierce the cloud of 'ambiguity' covering Israel's nuclear program." Vanunu effectively outed Israel's atomic ambitions without causing them any real harm, and now "leaders in the West openly justify Israel's nuclear program, depicting it as an insurance policy taken out by a small, vulnerable country whose hostile neighbors constantly threaten to destroy it."

Meanwhile, the British press followed Vanunu's story with almost equal interest. The reporter who wrote about Vanunu's revelations in 1986 for the Sunday Times was in Israel for the release ceremony, along with actress Susannah York (the Guardian has published some Vanunu's doting prison correspondence with her here). The Financial Times detailed Vanunu's confinement and the circumstances of the release. In the paper's view, his rough treatment and the restrictions placed on him border "on the sadistic." The Independent ran an op-ed headlined, "Israel Should Now Come Clean on Its Nuclear Arsenal." A Guardian leader made the same point, suggesting that "today is a rare opportunity, in the publicity surrounding Mr Vanunu's release, to take stock of this perverse silence." After all, the story argued, if Iran and Libya are "encouraged to take the open road," why not Israel? Vanunu may be a traitor to Israel, the Guardian concluded, but "he has shown a higher duty to wider humanity."

Ed Finn is the director of the Center for Science and the Imagination and an assistant professor in the School of Arts, Media and Engineering and the Department of English at Arizona State University.