[Marxism] The release of Mordechai Vanunu and U.S. complicity in the development of Israel's nuclear arsenal

Raymond Chase r_chase at sympatico.ca
Mon Apr 26 22:17:56 MDT 2004

From: <shniad at sfu.ca>


Foreign Policy in Focus     April 22, 2004

The release of Mordechai Vanunu and U.S. complicity in the development of
Israel's nuclear arsenal

By Stephen Zunes

The recent release on April 22 of Mordechai Vanunu from an Israeli prison
provides an opportunity to challenge the U.S. policy of supporting Israel's
development of nuclear weapons while threatening war against other Middle
Eastern states for simply having the potential for developing such weaponry.

Vanunu, a nuclear technician at Israel's Dimona nuclear plant, passed along
photographs he had taken inside the plant to the Sunday Times of London in
1986. His evidence demonstrated that Israel had developed up to two hundred
nuclear weapons of a highly advanced design, making it the world's
sixth-largest nuclear power. For his efforts, agents from the Mossad,
Israel's intelligence service, kidnapped him from Rome and brought him to
Israel [1] to stand before a secret tribunal that convicted him on charges
of espionage and treason and sentenced him to eighteen years in prison under
solitary confinement.

Though labeled a spy and a traitor, he was in fact simply a whistle-blower
who became "a martyr to the causes of press freedom and nuclear
de-escalation."[2] He never received any money for this act of conscience,
which he took upon recognizing that Israel's nuclear program went well
beyond its need for a deterrent and was likely offensive in nature. A former
strategic analyst at the Rand Corporation observed that Vanunu's revelations
about Israel's nuclear program demonstrated that: "Its scale and nature was
clearly designed for threatening and if necessary launching first-use of
nuclear weapons against conventional forces."[3] Prior to Vanunu's
revelations, many suspected that Israel's nuclear program was limited to
tactical nuclear artillery and naval shells.

Israel is one of just four countries--the others being Pakistan, India, and
Cuba--that has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. UN Security
Council resolution 1172 urges all countries to become parties of the

It is noteworthy that Israel finds whistle-blowing more threatening than
actual spying. None of the half dozen spies convicted in Israel for nuclear
espionage served as much time in prison as has Vanunu.[5]

Vanunu, who has been referred to by Daniel Ellsberg as "the pre-eminent hero
of the nuclear era,"[6] has been awarded the Sean McBride Peace prize, the
Right Livelihood Award, and an honorary doctorate from a Norwegian
university. He has also been repeatedly nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

The European parliament, former President Jimmy Carter, the Jewish Peace
Fellowship, the Federation of American Scientists, and many other prominent
individuals and organizations have long called for Vanunu's release. By
contrast, with few notable exceptions--such as the late Senator Paul
Wellstone of Minnesota --there has been virtually no support in Congress.
The four administrations in office during Vanunu's confinement have been
even less supportive. For example, in response to an inquiry by Tom
Campbell, the former Republican Congressman from California, Clinton's
assistant secretary of State, Barbara Larkin, claimed that Vanunu had had a
fair trial and was doing well in prison.[7]

This lack of U.S. support for Vanunu is just one part of the longstanding
U.S. acquiescence of Israel's nuclear program.

Israel has long stated that it would not be the first to introduce nuclear
weapons into the Middle East, which is a rather disingenuous commitment
given that U.S. planes and warships have been bringing nuclear weapons into
the region since the 1950s. Israel is generally believed to have become a
nuclear power by 1969. The newly elected President Richard Nixon and his
chief foreign policy adviser, Henry Kissinger, privately endorsed Israel's
program that year. They quickly ended the regular U.S. inspections of
Israel's Dimona nuclear center. This was of little consequence, however,
since these "inspections" were pro forma and not taken seriously. (President
Lyndon Johnson demonstrated his lack of concern over the prospects of Israel
becoming a nuclear power by rejecting calls that one of the early major
weapons sales to Israel be conditioned on Israel signing the NPT.) The Nixon
administration went to great lengths to keep nuclear issues out of any talks
on the Middle East. Information on Israeli nuclear capabilities was
routinely suppressed. The United States even supplied Israel with krytrons
(nuclear triggers) and supercomputers that were bound for the Israeli
nuclear program.[8]

Under the Carter administration, which took the threat of nuclear
proliferation somewhat more seriously than other administrations, the issue
of Israel's development of nuclear weaponry was not raised publicly. When
satellite footage of an aborted nuclear test in South Africa's Kalahari
Desert gave evidence of a large-scale presence of Israeli personnel at the
test site, the Carter administration kept it quiet.[9] Two years later, when
a U.S. satellite detected a successful joint Israeli-South African atomic
bomb test in the Indian Ocean, the Carter administration rushed to squelch
initial media reports. According to Joseph Nye, then-Deputy Under Secretary
of State, the Carter administration considered the Israel's nuclear weapons
program a low priority.[10]

Top officials in the Reagan administration made a conscious effort to keep
information on Israel's nuclear capability from State Department officials
and others who might have concerns over nuclear proliferation issues.[11]
The senior Bush administration sold at least 1,500 nuclear "dual-use" items
to Israel, according to a report by the General Accounting Office, despite
requirements under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that the existing
nuclear powers like the United States not help another country's nuclear
weapons program "in any way."[12]

The Israeli media reported that President Clinton wrote rightist Israeli
Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu in 1998 pledging that the United States
would continue to protect Israel's nuclear program from international
pressure. According to Haaretz, "the United States will preserve Israel's
strategic deterrence capabilities and ensure that Middle East arms control
initiatives will not damage it in the future. The Clinton letter provides
written--if secret--backup to the long-standing agreement between Jerusalem
and Washington over the preservation of Israel's nuclear capabilities if
Israel maintains its policy of 'ambiguity' and does not announce publicly
that it has the bomb.[13]

Meanwhile, Congress has for many years made it clear to the Nuclear
Regulatory Commission and other responsible parties that it did not want to
have anything revealed in an open hearing related to Israel's nuclear
capability. A major reason is that there are a number of laws that severely
restrict U.S. military and technical assistance to countries that develop
nuclear weapons. Israel is the largest recipient of U.S. arms exports, which
are highly profitable for the politically influential arms industry.

Outside of Washington, top Israeli nuclear scientists have had open access
to American institutions and many leading American nuclear scientists had
extended visits with their counterparts in Israel, in what has been called
"informational promiscuity" in the seepage of nuclear intelligence.[14]

In addition, given the enormous costs of any nuclear program of such
magnitude, it would have been very difficult for Israel to develop such a
large and advanced arsenal without the tens of billions of dollars in
unrestricted American financial support. More than simply employing a double
standard of threatening perceived enemies for developing nuclear weapons
while tolerating development of such weapons by its allies, the United
States has, in effect, subsidized nuclear proliferation in the Middle East.

In order to justify the U.S. invasion of Iraq, President George W. Bush,
Senator John Kerry, and others argued that Iraq had an ongoing nuclear
weapons program in violation of UN Security Council resolution 687. (In
reality, the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency had
determined in 1998 that Iraq's nuclear program had been completely
dismantled and IAEA inspections in the months immediately prior to the U.S.
invasion and exhaustive searches by U.S. forces subsequently have confirmed
that assessment.) What both Republican and Democratic leaders have failed to
observe, however, is that Israel remains in violation of UN Security Council
resolution 487, which calls on Israel to place its facilities at Dimona
under IAEA trusteeship. Despite bipartisan efforts in Congress to seek
repeal of that resolution, it is still legally binding. Bush and Kerry,
however, believe that UN Security Council resolutions, like nuclear
non-proliferation, do not apply to U.S. allies.

Within Israel, however, there was much debate among Israeli elites regarding
the wisdom of developing nuclear weapons. Some Israeli leaders--ranging from
former Labor Prime Ministers Golda Meir and Yigal Allon to former Likud
Defense Minister Raful Eitan--argued that a nuclear Israel would increase
the possibility of Arab states developing weapons of mass destruction and
launching a first strike against Israel.[15] Give the country's small size,
Israel might not have a credible second-strike capability. There is also the
fact that most of Israel's potential nuclear targets are close enough so
that a shift in wind could potentially send a radioactive cloud over Israel.

Furthermore, while one could make a case for an Israeli nuclear deterrent up
through the mid-1970s, Israel's qualitative advantage in conventional forces
relative to any combination of Arab states developed subsequently--resulting
in large part from a prodigious amount of taxpayer-funded arms transfers
from the United States--would appear to weaken the case for a nuclear
weapons development. Furthermore, Israel has an extensive biological and
chemical weapons program that far surpasses those of any potential hostile
power and--combined with vastly superior delivery systems--would constitute
a more-than-adequate deterrent.

Vanunu was forced to remain in solitary confinement until 1998, when ongoing
pressure from human rights groups forced the Israelis to end his
segregation, though he was still not allowed to talk with fellow prisoners.
Amnesty International, for example, observed that the prolonged isolation of
Vanunu constituted cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment and violated
international human rights law.[16] The eleven and a half years in solitary
confinement has reportedly taken a psychological toll, raising concerns that
he may not be a credible voice in the cause of nuclear non-proliferation
upon his release.

It appears, however, that Israel's U.S.-backed rightist government may not
give him a chance. On March 9, Israeli Attorney General Mordechai Mazuz said
that Vanunu's release from prison "will create a significant danger to state
security" and that there will likely be major restrictions placed upon his
movements and what he can say without the risk of returning to prison.[17]
Though the Moroccan-born Vanunu had decided to leave Israel prior to his
1986 kidnapping, he had converted to Christianity during an extended stay in
Australia the previous year, and has stated that he would like to emigrate
to the United States, the Israeli government will reportedly bar him from
leaving the country.[18]

Like Israel, the United States has acknowledged its willingness to use
nuclear weapons against non-nuclear adversaries. And, like in Israel, there
is an obsession with secrecy that allows the government to get away with
dangerous and destabilizing nuclear policies that risk a nuclear
catastrophe. It is not surprising, then, that the United States has failed
to challenge the Israeli government's policy toward this courageous nuclear

As Ellsberg has observed, "The cult and culture of secrecy in every nuclear
weapons state has endangered and continues to threaten the survival of
humanity. Vanunu's challenge to that wrongful and dangerous secrecy must be
joined worldwide."[19]

Stephen Zunes is a professor of Politics and chair of the Peace & Justice
Studies Program at the University of San Francisco. He serves as Middle East
editor for Foreign Policy in Focus (online at www.fpif.org) and is the
author of Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism
(Common Courage Press, 2003). He is currently conducting research in Israel
and the Israeli-occupied West Bank.


End Notes

1. The woman who lured Vanunu was an American working for the Mossad.
2. The Sunday Times, December 27, 1992.
3. Daniel Ellsberg, " Mordechai Vanunu's Meaning for the Nuclear Age,"
Blaetter fuer deutsche und internationale Politik, April 2004.
4. UN Security Council Resolution 1172 (1998), article 13.
5. P. R. Kumaraswarmy, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, March/April 1999.

6. Ellsberg, op. cit.
7. http://www.nonviolence.org/vanunu/archive/f99howstatedept.html.
8. Seymour Hersch, The Sampson Option, New York: Random House, 1991, p.
9. Ibid., p. 268.
10. Cited in Ibid., p. 283.
11. Ibid., p. 291
12. Jane Hunter, "A Nuclear Affair," Middle East International, 24 June
1994, pp. 12-13.
13. Aluf Benn, "A President's Promise: Israel Can Keep its Nukes," Ha'aretz,
May 14, 2000.
14. Helena Cobban, " Israel's Nuclear Game: The U.S. Stake," World Policy
Journal, Summer 1988, pp. 427-428.
15. David Twersky, "Is Silence Golden? Vanunu and Nuclear Israel," Tikkun,
(Vol 3, No. 1).
16. Amnesty International, October 1991.
17. Gideon Alon, "AG Mazuz: Vanunu significant danger to state security."
Ha'aretz, March 9, 2004.
18. Yossi Melman, "Security sources: Vanunu applied for passport,"Ha'aretz,
March 10, 2004.
19. Ellsberg, op. cit.

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