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Last Updated: Tuesday, 20 April, 2004, 09:50 GMT 10:50 UK
Vanunu: Israel's nuclear telltale
The spotlight falls back on Israel's secret nuclear weapons programme on Wednesday, as Mordechai Vanunu, the man who exposed it, walks from jail after an 18-year sentence. BBC News Online's Martin Asser looks at the significance of the case.

Mordechai Vanunu's revelations in 1986 appeared to confirm suspicions about Israel's nuclear arsenal and showed a weapons programme bigger and more advanced than anyone had previously thought.

Vanunu being transported between jail to court
Vanunu gets a message to the outside world: "Vanunu M, was hijacked in Rome..."
He had worked for nine years as a technician at the Dimona nuclear research centre in the Negev desert - but he left in late 1985 to backpack around the Far East, having become disillusioned with his work.

Before quitting he surreptitiously snapped two rolls of film at the top secret nuclear plant, including equipment for extracting radioactive material for arms production and laboratory models of thermonuclear devices.

It is not clear whether Vanunu was already set upon blowing the whistle on Israel's secret nuclear activities, but by the following year he had joined a group of anti-nuclear Christians in Sydney, Australia, coincidentally being baptised as an Anglican.

One of the group, Colombian-born freelance journalist Oscar Guerrero, persuaded him to follow his conscience and publish the pictures along with detailed information about the Dimona plant.

It was a decision that led him first to London and the Sunday Times - then to Rome and kidnapping by Israeli intelligence service Mossad - then back to Israel and a long jail sentence.

Secret deal

Israel is thought to have begun its quest for weapons of mass destruction soon after the establishment of the state in 1948.

Faced by a hostile region and vastly outnumbered by its enemies, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion desired a nuclear deterrent, but without wanting to upset Israel's friends by introducing non-conventional weapons into a flashpoint region.

He was a traitor to this country
Shimon Peres
So Israel did a secret deal with France to build the Dimona plant, which is thought to have gone into production to make the ingredients for nuclear weapons in the 1960s.

Successive governments employed a policy of "nuclear ambiguity" and have hidden behind the (apparently misleading) formula that "Israel will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East".

Sunday Times Vanunu story
The 1986 Sunday Times story that lifted the lid off Israel's nuclear weapons programme
Ever since admitting that the Dimona plant housed a nuclear reactor rather than a textile factory, Israeli officials have insisted it is intended for exclusively peaceful purposes.

Israel never signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, so Dimona is not subject to international scrutiny - and its "ambiguity" policy has been accepted by Washington (which has laws preventing it from supporting proliferating states) at face value.

It was against this murky backdrop that the Vanunu affair exploded in 1986.

Stunning revelation

Mordechai Vanunu is a Moroccan Jew born in 1954, whose family arrived in Israel in 1963. In 1971 he became a sapper in the Israeli army, having failed in his main ambition to join the air force.

After military service he was taken on as a trainee at Dimona and ended up working in the underground Machon 2 facility, which he claimed was responsible for the production of the bomb components plutonium, lithium dueteride and beryllium.

I claim that I wanted to tell the world about what was happening... this is not treason, it is informing the world
Mordechai Vanunu
Outside his top secret job, Vanunu began studying philosophy at Ben Gurion university, where he became more and more involved in politics - espousing pro-Palestinian views and joining the anti-war movement.

By 1985, he learnt that he was being made redundant, but he had already decided to leave the plant, taking his infamous photographs before his departure.

The world was stunned when the Sunday Times published its expose Revealed: The Secrets of Israel's Nuclear Arsenal on 5 October 1986.

Experts tricked

Editor Andrew Neil described the three-page spread as the greatest scoop he achieved as head of one of the UK's most influential papers.

Not only did Vanunu's account expose the sham of the blind-eye policy towards Israel's nuclear capability by its main ally, Washington.

Lathe for making plutonium rods
Vanunu's pictures showed nuclear weapons making equipment in close detail
His information, which was verified by experts in the nuclear field, also indicated that Dimona was capable of producing much more weapons-grade plutonium than previously thought.

According to him, the plant had been upgraded several times to increase production of plutonium and in 1985 could make 1.2 kg per week, enough for up to 12 nuclear warheads a year.

Israel's estimated nuclear capability had to be revised from a handful of weapons to approximately 100-200 warheads, ranging from battlefield weapons to warheads that could lay waste whole cities.

He also recounted stories of how US experts allowed to inspect the site in the 1960s had been tricked by false walls and concealed lifts so they did not even realise the six underground floors at Machon 2 existed.

Whistleblower or traitor

Before the Sunday Times had even printed its story, Mordechai Vanunu had been lured away from London and kidnapped in Rome in a much-publicised Mossad sting.

Drugged and bound, he was shipped back home to face the full force of Israeli justice.

He may have been hailed as a heroic whistle blower by the anti-nuclear camp outside Israel, which has campaigned doggedly on his behalf and even had him nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, but there have been few tears shed for him by Israelis.

Former Prime Minister Shimon Peres - who ordered his capture, reportedly on Italian soil so as not to embarrass the then-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher - expresses the prevailing view.

"[Vanunu] was a traitor to this country. I can't go into all the processes... The fact is that he was brought to trial," Mr Peres said in a recent BBC interview.

Certainly he has done little to endear himself to the Israeli public - abandoning Judaism, appearing to endanger national security and jeopardising ties with Washington, Israel's greatest supporter.

And his 18 years incarceration - more than half of the time in solitary confinement - seems if anything to have sharpened his political views.

"I claim that I wanted to tell the world about what was happening... this is not treason, it is informing the world, unlike Israel's policies," he said in a taped prison interview leaked two days before the release.

Using draconian measures inherited from pre-1948 British emergency legislation the Israeli judiciary is taking steps to make sure that Vanunu does not spill any more of Israel's secrets.

He says he has none, but wants to continue his campaign for Israel to abandon nuclear arms - so he still has the ability to cause plenty of embarrassment.

Vanunu 'is still security risk'
09 Mar 04  |  Middle East
Israel's nuclear programme
22 Dec 03  |  Middle East
Israeli nuclear 'power' exposed
16 Mar 03  |  Correspondent

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