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Israel's Nuclear Weapons (1) - 2004-07-21

Fleeing anti-Semitic violence in Morocco, the Vanunu family emigrated to Israel in 1962 and settled in the Negev desert. Living conditions were harsh for the Sephardic Jewish community, and young Mordechai turned to equally disconsolate Arabs for friendship. At a rally he urged creating a Palestinian state.

Not a likely candidate for Israel's super secret Dimona nuclear reaction center, but he landed a job as a technician in 1977. He was removed in 1986, a security file noting his "left-wing and pro-Arab beliefs." He took with him detailed knowledge of Dimona and some 60 photos, proof positive of Israel's nuclear weapons program that had been denied.

After much traveling and soul searching, he presented his material to the London Times, and while the newspaper debated what to do with it, a winsome Mossad agent lured him to Rome, where he was seized and returned to Israel. Charged with treason and espionage, he was sentenced to 18 years in prison and served 12 in solitary confinement.

On his release in April, he was met by a band of supporters, including Nick and Mary Eoloff, strong opponents of nuclear weapons who live in the American midwest. They had gone to court to adopt him since his own parents had renounced him for converting to Christianity, as Mary Eoloff explains:

"We are peace activists and whenever we would go to an event, we would take petitions along to be signed, which were directed to President Clinton to ask him to use his good offices to persuade Israel to release Mordechai. And then out of frustration when President Clinton did not act on it, we decided to adopt him and bring him to the United States."

That still lies ahead. Mr. Vanunu remains confined to what the Eoloffs call a luxury prison in the Anglican bishop's compound in East Jerusalem. But life has definitely improved for him, says Nick Eoloff: "He is enjoying the different things that he has been deprived of for 18 years. In the first conversation we had he said he was eating with silver and drinking out of glasses and drinking wine for the first time. He does go to restaurants, and he indicated that at some of the restaurants in East Jerusalem he is recognized by Arabs, and they are friendly. So life is coming back to him little by little. He is learning the computer and we correspond with him now regularly."

In an interview with the Washington Times, the first permitted foreign newspaper, Mr. Vanunu continued to insist on openness for Israel's nuclear arms program and a sharp reduction in the number of weapons. Nick Eoloff says this concern was always with him in prison:

"After several months of isolation when he realized he was losing his mind, he would put on his shoes every day and would have nowhere to go, and all he saw were the walls for several months. So he thought the only way he could keep his mind was to relive what he had done in Dimona."

But the Israeli Government says his understanding of the nuclear program is hardly up to date, and there seems to be less of an effort to keep it a secret. In fact, Israel has now placed pictures of Dimona on its website, somewhat duplicating Vanunu's. That suggests that sooner or later the Eoloffs will get their wish and Mr. Vanunu will arrive in the United States, where he says he wants to teach history. He may lack the credentials, says Nick Eoloff. But prison gave him a lot of time to read history.

His arrival would not be so welcome to the woman who enticed him abroad. Israeli newspapers have identified her as Cheryl Bentov, who lives with her husband, also a former Mossad operative, in an upscale community in Florida. But Louis Rene Beres, professor of political science and international law at Purdue University and an authority on nuclear arms, says Israel is relaxed about Vanunu's release:

"Vanunu, of course, believed that by disclosing elements of what was going on at Israel's Dimona's reactor, he would be contributing to world peace. What he did was exactly the opposite. I think it is clear that he is no longer conversant with the current elements of Israel's nuclear infrastructure. I don't think he poses any particular hazard. That is just a regrettable episode in the Israeli nuclear past."

What of Israel's nuclear future and growing threats against Iran's effort to produce similar weapons? That is the subject of the next Focus.