In a remarkable departure from decades of nuclear secrecy, Israel’s military censors permitted nuclear spy Mordechai Vanunu to give a lengthy interview to primetime Israeli television on Friday night, in a move that took Israel closer than ever to acknowledging the existence of its nuclear arsenal.
The interview on Israel’s Channel 2 news featured several fascinating revelations and anecdotes, but its most dramatic aspect by far was that Vanunu — who was barred from giving interviews under the terms of his release from 18 years in jail for treason in 2004 — was allowed to speak freely, with the full permission of Israel’s security establishment, about what his interviewer termed his exposure of “one of Israel’s greatest secrets.”
A technician from 1976-85 at Israel’s nuclear facility at Dimona, Vanunu revealed overwhelming evidence of Israel’s nuclear program to Britain’s Sunday Times in 1986, including dozens of photographs, enabling nuclear experts to conclude that Israel had produced at least 100 nuclear warheads.
To this day, Israel has never acknowledged that it has a nuclear arsenal, instead maintaining a policy of “nuclear ambiguity” while vowing that it will not be the first to use nuclear weapons in the Middle East.
The timing of the interview Friday appeared particularly telling, as Israel internalizes that its lobbying efforts have likely failed to prevent Congress approving the world powers’ nuclear deal with Iran, which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called “a historic mistake.” Netanyahu has repeatedly pledged to act alone if necessary to ensure Iran does not obtain nuclear weapons. Two weeks ago, the military censor allowed the broadcast on TV of tape-recorded conversations in which former defense minister Ehud Barak describes at least three occasions in 2010, 2011 and 2012 when Israel ostensibly came close to striking at Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Vanunu, now 60, was interviewed in a friend’s apartment in Tel Aviv. He described a gradual process by which he decided, over his years working at Dimona, that he had an obligation to reveal “to the citizens of Israel and the Middle East and the world” the nature of what he called “the powder keg” at Dimona — “the quantities, the numbers, the types.”
“I saw what they were producing and its significance,” he said, calling Israel’s nuclear program “a failure” that he had “exposed” — in an apparent critique of Israel’s entire nuclear strategy.
He talked about bringing “an ordinary camera, a Pentax” into the facility where he had been working for nine years, soon after learning that he was going to be fired, and shooting two rolls of film — about 58 pictures. He wasn’t suspected because he was a familiar figure, and he habitually carried a backpack with his university text books into the facility.
‘Any man would have fallen’ for the honey trap, he said to interviewer Danny Kushmaro, ‘including you’
He then kept the film for months, taking it overseas to Thailand, Nepal and Australia before finally getting it developed in Sydney. “I took a risk that the film would be ruined,” he said.
He denied that he had exposed the nuclear program as revenge for losing his job, and also denied being paid any money by The Sunday Times or others for his revelations. His long-term lawyer, Avigdor Feldman, he said, works for him voluntarily.
Vanunu described how he was lured from London to Rome and arrested — befriended in a Mossad honeytrap by an agent (Cheryl Bentov) he knew as Cindy. “Any man would have fallen” for the ploy, he said to interviewer Danny Kushmaro, “including you.”
He claimed that he picked Cindy up, not the other way around, when they were crossing a street in London, and never suspected that she was an agent until he woke up after three days drugged on a boat bound for Israel. She had suggested they travel to Italy, where the Mossad raided their apartment and kept him chained to a bed for seven days, he said. Even in Italy, he said, he thought Cindy “was also a victim.”
‘I, Mordechai Vanunu, took the responsibility to inform the citizens of the nuclear danger… Dimona is very dangerous’
Asked whether he’d fallen in love with her, he said, “Yes, no, I didn’t fall in love with her. I said a connection could develop.”
He said his punishment — with 11 of his 18 years in jail served in solitary — had been radically unfair. He paid the price, he said, of destroying the global reputation of the Shin Bet domestic intelligence service by exposing the nuclear secret. “I went against the Shin Bet, the Mossad, the army,” he said.
He said he was “not a foreign spy,” but rather someone who acted as he did “because I thought it was the right of the people to know… I, Mordechai Vanunu, took the responsibility to inform the citizens of the nuclear danger… Dimona is very dangerous,” he said.
That role ended the day the Sunday Times published the story, he said. “I’m done with this story. I have no more secrets.”
Therefore, he pleaded that he be allowed to leave Israel and live abroad with his new Norwegian wife. (He married Professor Kristin Joachimsen at a church ceremony in Jerusalem in May.) He said he had sought to annul his citizenship, no longer felt he was Israeli, noted he had converted to Christianity, and asked: “Why are they still keeping me here?”
He said he would be prepared to pledge not to give interviews if he were allowed to leave Israel, but then seemed to backtrack. (He has given several interviews to the foreign press over the years, in breach of his release provisions.)
Israel has repeatedly denied him permission to leave the country, in part because he allegedly still constitutes a security threat, and a further High Court hearing on the issue is expected soon. (In 2007, Vanunu was jailed for an additional six months for violating his release provisions when he was found traveling towards the West Bank city of Bethlehem, away from his home in Jerusalem.)
Vanunu also claimed he was punished more severely because he comes from a poor Moroccan background as opposed to a more privileged European one. But the bottom line, he pleaded, was that, “They should close the Vanunu file.”