He served out his prison term two years ago and is widely reviled by
fellow Israelis as a traitor, but nuclear whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu stands
little chance of starting a new life abroad any time soon.
Citing security concerns, Israel's Justice Ministry last month renewed its
ban on travel by Vanunu, a former technician at the Dimona atomic reactor who
all but blew away the country's cherished nuclear secrecy with a 1986 newspaper
The ban is subject to annual review. Senior Israeli security sources said they
expected it to be extended indefinitely.
Israeli officials accuse Vanunu, a 51-year-old Jewish convert to Christianity
who has repudiated the Jewish state, of having more military secrets to spill.
He denies it but has won few friends in Israel by pursuing a strident campaign
to expose Dimona.
"Vanunu's behavior both vexes and perplexes the security establishment,"
said Michael Karpin, author of "The Bomb in the Basement," a study
of Israel's nuclear capability. "Their thinking is: 'Why should we let
him go and hope for the best?"'
Keen to deter foes but eager to avoid an arms race, Israel neither confirms
nor denies having the Middle East's only atomic arsenal under a policy of "strategic
ambiguity." The monopoly has long aggrieved Arabs and arch-foe Iran, which
is now developing its own nuclear program -- for energy, it says.
Police charges were filed against Vanunu last year after he violated restrictions
on contacts with foreign journalists.
The indictment quoted him as telling U.S., British, Australian and French media
that Israel assembled hydrogen and neutron bombs at Dimona and was annually
producing 40 kg (88 pounds) of plutonium, enough to make 10 atom bombs, at the
Vanunu's supporters noted that there was little new here -- a retread of disclosures
made to Britain's Sunday Times in the interview for which he was abducted in
Rome by Israeli agents and sentenced to 18 years in prison.
But such details may not be what worries Israel now.
Security sources said that, during his nine years at Dimona, Vanunu was exposed
to something -- perhaps equipment, technical data, procedures or personnel --
of major significance to Israel, though he remains unaware of its true value.
"Let's just say he doesn't know what he knows, but that an expert debriefer
could get it out of him if given the chance," a security source said without
Vanunu's lawyer, Michael Sfard, rejected such suggestions.
"This is a claim that, by definition, Mordechai cannot be expected to
address fairly," he said.
THE LIMITS OF PRE-EMPTION
Israel's Supreme Court, which has limited the security forces in areas such
as interrogations and punitive counter-terrorism measures, upheld the travel
ban on Vanunu.
Sfard said that while Israel, like many countries, acts pre-emptively against
recidivists -- people repeatedly arrested for criminal behavior -- Vanunu should
not be so targeted.
"What sort of democracy limits a man's liberty on the pure assumption
that he could break the law again?" he said.
Frank Barnaby, a nuclear proliferation expert who questioned Vanunu about Dimona
over a period of several days on behalf of the Sunday Times, said he doubted
whether the whistleblower could produce any further information of use.
"I believe he told us everything he knew," Barnaby said by telephone
A former senior official from Israel's Mossad intelligence agency said more
time would be needed to scour Vanunu's memories of Dimona.
By all accounts, they are extensive. Israel's Justice Ministry cited a scrapbook
that Vanunu kept in prison in which he drew extensive sketches of the reactor.
He has confirmed its existence but described it as an innocent memory exercise.
"We learned while handling defectors during the Cold War that sometimes
it takes many months to fully debrief someone who was exposed to something of
value," said the Mossad veteran, who declined to be named due to the sensitivity
of the subject.
Barnaby said such thinking should be taken in context.
"So much will have changed at Dimona by now that any knowledge he (Vanunu)
has would have become obsolete," he said.
Vanunu, who lives in a church hostel in Jerusalem on handouts from his fans,
says that by refusing international inspections Israel risks a nuclear disaster
and inflames regional tensions.
He says he went public on Dimona to stop a "second Holocaust." He
has also questioned the Jewish state's right to exist.
When Vanunu was freed from jail in 2004, a former Mossad chief expressed concern
the whistleblower could invent details about Israel's nuclear capability and
fuel calls for it to be curbed.
While some of Vanunu's comments may have bolstered this theory -- in one interview,
he alleged that Israel engineered the 1963 assassination of U.S. President John
F. Kennedy to stop him probing Dimona -- there is now a question of credibility.
"So few people are interested in hearing what he has to say these days,
that even when it comes to Israel's image abroad Vanunu is not much of a threat,"