This Week in History: Vanunu convicted for treason

The former Dimona nuclear technician was lured away from London by female Mossad agent, extracted to Israel after leaking nuclear secrets.

vanunu 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
vanunu 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
On March 28, 1988, Mordechai Vanunu was convicted by an Israeli court for treason and espionage, and sentenced to 18 years in prison. A year-and-a-half earlier, Mordechai had been enjoying the London art scene with a young Jewish-American woman he had met only a few days earlier. Traipsing around Europe fueled by the excitement of fresh romance, he had no idea that the exciting prospect of love and companionship would in fact lead him to 11 years of solitary confinement.
Vanunu, a Moroccan-born son of a rabbi, served as a sapper during his IDF service and in his early twenties took an entry-level job as a nuclear technician in Dimona in the 1970s. The position required no scientific background and only a few months training, but Mordechai worked his way up and became a shift supervisor at the nuclear plant. He spent ten years in Dimona before being laid off, partly due to cost-cutting measures but also because the security services had become wary of the friendships with Palestinians that he was developing through his participation in a student peace group.
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Around a year after being fired, during travels in Australia, where he converted to Christianity, Vanunu told a freelance journalist some of the juicer secrets he had learned during his decade in Dimona. Motivated by a desire to see a world free of nuclear weapons and disheartened by the ongoing Palestinian conflict, a short sequence of events led him to supply the London-based Sunday Times with pictures he had secretly taken in the Dimona nuclear plant and with detailed descriptions of what the paper would later describe as an Israeli nuclear weapons program.
The British paper, skeptical of his claims, put Vanunu up in a London hotel room while it vetted his story for weeks before running it. However, five days before the Times article detailing his claims was published, Vanunu, feeling isolated and lonely, left his London hotel room to explore London despite strong warnings from the newspaper.
As the story goes, Mordechai met Cindy, an American-born Mossad agent masquerading as a young American cosmetologist touring Europe. The two fell head-over-heels for one another. The Israeli security services had Vanunu within reach but were hesitant to carry out a covert operation on English soil, so they set in motion a plan to lure him outside of the UK; Vanunu played right along. Eager to escape the isolation and pressure of his situation, the nuclear technician quickly agreed to Cindy’s suggestion that the two escape to Italy for a few days. The honey trap was set.
According to reports, shortly after arriving on what he though was a romantic escapade, Vanunu was drugged, snatched up by Mossad agents and secretly flown back to Israel. Tried for espionage and treason, at the end of March 1988 he was sentenced to 18 years in prison.
Eventually released in 2004, Vanunu has been sent back to prison several times - most recently in mid-2010 - for violating the conditions of his release; he was prohibited from traveling abroad, coming into contact with foreigners and granting interviews. Worried that he might expose additional state secrets, both about his nuclear knowledge and the covert operation that brought him back to Israel a quarter-century ago, Vanunu must notify the authorities if he wants to spend the night at a friend’s home to this day.
Israel’s most famous nuclear whistleblower and traitor – depending on the narrative – has become a cause célèbre for anti-nuclear activists the world over. He was recognized as a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International, has been regularly nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and been awarded various other prizes and medals for his stubborn determination to expose what he claims is Israel’s nuclear weapons program.
Nearly everything about the Vanunu case has captivated Israeli and international audiences for a quarter-century. For many Israelis, the stubborn determination to publish his entire repertoire of state secrets, combined with a sense of national betrayal for converting to Christianity led to a sense of contempt that hasn't faded for 25 years. Abroad, he is largely honored as a courageous nuclear whistleblower. But no matter which narrative he is viewed through, Mordechai Vanunu’s saga – from the information he released, to the honey trap operation that landed him back in Israel, and his continuing legal troubles – remains one of the most thrilling ongoing state security tales of the Jewish state.