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Whistleblowers and the Bomb: Vanunu, Israel and Nuclear Secrecy
By Yoel Cohen
The story has all the trappings of a Hollywood thriller. There's nuclear espionage, a Mossad kidnapping, an embattled whistleblower - think The Insider meets Munich. But while the story hasn't been picked up by Spielberg just yet, it has steadily generated controversy for almost two decades.
On October 5, 1986, The Sunday Times in London published Mordechai Vanunu's expos on Israel's Dimona nuclear reactor, and the questions raised by Vanunu's revelations still reverberate today.
Yoel Cohen returns to some of the issues that emerged in the wake of the Vanunu scandal with an updated edition of Whistleblowers and the Bomb: Vanunu, Israel and Nuclear Secrecy, including an interview with Vanunu after his release from prison. Cohen, a Senior Lecturer at the School of Communications, Netanya College and the Holon Academic Institute of Technology, carefully dissects the various elements that comprise Vanunu's story. Cohen uses his background in media and mass communications to add nuance to the saga. He not only explores the story, but also the way the story was portrayed.
Cohen provides an extremely thorough and detailed chronology of the affair - from Vanunu's life in Israel to his kidnapping by Mossad agents in Italy, his closed trial, his 18-year imprisonment and finally his release in 2004. Cohen draws on extensive research, including recently released documents from the trial and a rare interview with Vanunu himself. At times, some of the facts seem to be added as an afterthought, muddling the otherwise coherent storyline. Still, Cohen does a commendable job guiding the reader through this convoluted saga.
In Whistleblowers, Cohen addresses the many questions that arise from Mordechai Vanunu's strange relationship with the state of Israel. Foremost, who is Mordechai Vanunu, and why did he do what he did? Cohen presents a delicate probe into what guided Vanunu's decision to bring his photos and story to The Sunday Times.
Vanunu is portrayed as a complicated and even tragic figure. He spent most of his life in Israel as an outsider, subject to racism as a Moroccan and ostracized as a communist and Arab sympathizer. Eventually he left his job in Dimona and made his way to London by way of Australia, converting to Christianity along the way. Vanunu's eccentricities and solitary nature provided plenty of fodder for his many detractors, who argued that Vanunu went public about Dimona out of spite for Israel and because of his desire for publicity.
Cohen, on the other hand, is far more sympathetic. Unlike Vanunu's many critics, who portray him as egocentric at best and mentally unstable at worst, Cohen portrays him as guided by a moral compass. Vanunu felt he had an ideological obligation to speak out, even if, as Cohen says, his motivations were somewhat dubious. In an interview, Cohen pointed out that Vanunu's own behavior after the trial often reinforced his negative public image by "abandoning his self-defined mission." By trying to leave Israel rather than continue speaking out, Vanunu appears to be "leaving a sinking ship."
In addition to exploring the identity of Mordechai Vanunu, Whistleblowers also asks: What is the nature of the interaction between media and state in Israeli society? In many democracies it is well established that news outlets will publish articles regardless of the humiliation or scandal they might cause. This is not entirely the case in Israel, however, where a law carried over from the British Mandate allows the government to censor the media under the broad justification of national security. Nowadays, journalists feel the censor's presence when reporting about Kassam rockets from Gaza, so as not to help improve terrorists' accuracy. But it wasn't long ago that censorship was invoked to save the state from possible embarrassment. Cohen's analysis of the balance between a free press and security with regard to Vanunu provides profound insights into the ongoing debate.
As a corollary, Cohen also asks how deference to authority in Israel affects the relationship between security and freedom. While acquiescence to the government in matters of national security has waned since the Yom Kippur War and Lebanon, it is still prevalent within Israeli society. Cohen raises valuable questions about the state of democracy in Israel and the persistence of what he calls "excessive secrecy." The handling of Vanunu - from his kidnapping in Italy to his closed door trial and subsequent solitary confinement - does more than enough to prompt these questions.
Perhaps the most timely question raised in Whistleblowers is what is the feasibility of Israel's policy of nuclear ambiguity? As long as Israel maintained its policy of nuclear uncertainty it could deter its Arab neighbors without necessarily provoking an arms race in the region, or creating a diplomatic mess with the United States.
However, Cohen asks, if the whole world already believes Israel maintains a nuclear arsenal, how can Israel still abide by its policy of secrecy? In terms of the Vanunu case, Cohen questions whether Vanunu's disclosures truly damaged national security or just confirmed the obvious. These questions are especially relevant today with the rising threat of Iranian nuclear capability.
Speaking to the Post, Cohen said, "in an age of non-conventional threats there is greater anxiety and concern," and therefore the level of support for the bomb has jumped. In Israel, Cohen stressed, there is a "subservience to [the notion of] having the bomb," which also ensures that the public remains vehemently anti-Vanunu.
Ultimately, the most important question Cohen asks in Whistleblowers is whether Mordechai Vanunu should have spent 18 years in a jail cell. Cohen quite clearly states his opinion that he should not have. For the majority of Israel, however, the only question is whether or not Vanunu should have ever been released.