For three decades Israel declared "We will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons to the Middle East." During this time it was secretly developing an extensive nuclear program, hiding its existence from the Israeli people and parliament, and from the international community. Mordechai Vanunu had the courage to break this wall of silence.
Vanunu worked as a nuclear technician at Dimona, Israel's nuclear installation, from 1976 to 1985. In 1986, based on his evidence, experts concluded that Israel had stockpiled up to 200 nuclear warheads, making it the world's sixth largest nuclear power.
On Sept. 30, 1986, days before his information was published, Vanunu was drugged and kidnapped from Rome by Israeli agents. He was tried in total secrecy, charged with "treason" and "espionage" and sentenced to 18 years' imprisonment. Since then he has been kept in complete isolation. The European Parliament has repeatedly condemned "the behavior of the Israeli authorities" and called for his release.
Vanunu has been honored by several international organizations and has been given the prominent Right Livelihood Award, regarded as the alternative Nobel Peace Prize.
We sing "Happy Birthday" outside Ashquelon Prison walls. Do our voices carry beyond the guard tower to the three by two metre cell where Mordechai Vanunu begins his 11th year of continuous solitary confinement? On this day, Oct. 12, Vanunu is 42 years old.
Over the next two days, we and many others attend an international conference in Tel Aviv organized by the worldwide campaign for Vanunu's release. The primary goal of this conference is to help Israelis think beyond the stones of slander that have been thrown at Vanunu and beyond the stilted silences that surround their government's nuclear weapons program.
The conference was very successful in achieving these important objectives. The prominence of the individuals involved and the scope of the international campaign clearly impressed the Hebrew-language media. Israeli media coverage of the conference was extensive, generally serious, at times even sympathetic. As Yael Lotan, one of the original activists in the Vanunu campaign, observed: "The dam broke."
The media seemed particularly impressed with the views expressed by the conference chair, Prof. Joseph Rotblat, joint winner of the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize, and by Daniel Ellsberg. Ellsberg, like Vanunu, is a "whistle-blower" who as an act of conscience against his government's war in Indochina released classified papers - the Pentagon Papers -- to The New York Times.
Israeli President Ezer Weizman agreed at the end of the conference to meet with Joseph Rotblat. In retrospect, we understood that Weizman's aim was to counter-attack our achievements. By demonstrating in the bluntest terms his government's intransigence, he sought to demoralize us.
According to Rotblat's account, not only did Weizman proclaim that 10 years' continuous solitary is "not enough" for Vanunu, he said that Rotblat himself had "done a very good thing" by helping to design the atomic bomb. Recall that Rotblat was awarded the Nobel precisely because of his consistent opposition to nuclear weapons after his initial involvement in the Manhattan Project.
Weizman's comments had the opposite effect he intended: They confirmed our conviction that the conference had contributed to moving public discussion of the Vanunu case, and its wider implications, beyond slander and silence. We were therefore enthused and determined to expand the campaign.
Yet Weizman's words reveal enduring features of the dominant Israeli political culture, features that should command our attention and reflection.
First, in his vindictiveness towards Vanunu, Weizman expresses the tribalism of Jewish-Israeli politics. It is this tribalism that systematically privileges Jews above non-Jewish citizens of Israel, and which is the philosophical foundation of the growing settler vigilantism throughout the occupied Palestinian territories.
Yesheyahu Leibowitz, a great Judaic scholar, professor of natural science, and winner of Israel's highest cultural award, commented a decade ago: "When the nation -- Volk in Nazi language -- and its state power become supreme values there are no restrictions on the acts of man. We have such a mentality here."
Vanunu's "crime" was that he rejected these supreme values. Vanunu put loyalty to a common humanity above loyalty to his Volk; he put conscience above blind obedience to his state. It is for these transgressions that he is being so cruelly punished.
Vanunu was not a spy for any other country. Other states already knew Israel had nuclear weapons. It was the ordinary citizens of Israel and the world who were kept in the dark. It was to us that Vanunu spoke, through the pages of London's The Sunday Times when it published his revelations about the clandestine nuclear weapons facility at Dimona.
Indeed, even Vanunu's trial, which followed his kidnapping by Israeli agents in Rome on Sept. 30, 1986, was announced as a closed trial. This can best be understood as a "show trial" about the sanctity of secrecy, about the necessity to remain loyal to the tribe and obedient to its state.
At the same time as Vanunu's dedication to universalist values and his courage are seen as "transgressions" by the state, his philosophy charts the only route to a reconciliation of the region's conflicts, the only hope for breaking the downward spiral of more horrific wars.
But the 1993 Oslo accords -- despite the rhetoric surrounding their proclamation -- have since been revealed as being grounded in the same old "supreme values." Visiting Gaza and the West Bank after the Vanunu conference, I found Palestinian children dramatically more malnourished than before Oslo, some adults even living on West Jerusalem's garbage. This impoverishment is the direct consequence of massive unemployment; a trend directly attributable to Israeli military closures and the confinement of Palestinians to separated and shrunken reserves.
Even in Gaza, some one million Palestinians survive, fragmented and surrounded, while 3,000 settlers attended by 5,000 Israeli soldiers occupy and control nearly 40 percent of the land. Entrance and exit is controlled by the Israelis; the 60,000 Palestinians who used to leave Gaza each day to work have been restricted to 7,000.
Extensive networks of settler-only roads and tunnels have gobbled more Palestinian lands as they segregate not just Palestinians from Jews but Palestinian community from Palestinian community, mocking the promise of a contiguous territory. The settler population in the West Bank has increased by 40 percent. Everywhere the intimate collaboration between the Israeli secret police and the many Palestinian Authority police forces targets Palestinian democratic dissent.
All this before Binyamin Netanyahu.
It is a hoax to name this reconciliation. The real Oslo accord is a plan for the reorganization of Israeli control over Palestinian existence, giving a collaborative role to the former Palestinian leadership. A tiny minority of secular and universalist voices, like Noam Chomsky and Edward Said, said so from the beginning. Or as a young, university-educated Palestinian working with the Gaza Mental Health Centre told me: "There was more peace before 'peace'."
Sept. 25, 26, and 27, a few days after I arrived, Palestinian anger supplanted despair and made the world headlines. It was not anger over 100 days of Netanyahu, let alone his government's latest attempt to humiliate the Palestinians with the opening of a tunnel in East Jerusalem; it was rather anger which had been accumulating in the three years since Oslo.
The Israeli military responded with helicopter gunships and tanks. Inherent in this response is a self-delusionary notion of peace, expressed accurately by finance minister Dan Meridor: "Only after we build up our strength and they lose their hope will there be peace."
Which brings me back to the second significant comment by President Weizman; namely, his admiration for Rotblat's role in developing the atomic bomb. In this chilling echo of Dr. Strangelove, Weizman draws our attention to his country's (decades-long) reliance on nuclear weapons and their full integration into military and diplomatic strategies.
The power-play use of these 100 to 200 nuclear weapons, which Ellsberg estimated are targeted for the instant annihilation of between 10 and 20 million people, certainly has been grasped by very few in the peace movement. Israel's record of nuclear diplomacy has been reviewed in some detail in the November 1996 report of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, "Review and Analysis: Arms Control and Proliferation in the Middle East," a document which should be essential reading and an impetus to discussion.
Daniel Ellsberg has said he knew in 1961 that the activation of U.S. nuclear "target folders" would kill 600 million people (exclusive of any Soviet response). The Pentagon stated this in a one-page memo to President Kennedy, "for the President's eyes only." Ellsberg was shown the memo. In retrospect he considers it the "most evil plan(s) any human beings have made" yet he did not have the courage of a Vanunu to reveal it then. Nor did anyone else.
Yes, the case of Vanunu is a human rights case. Certainly his current imprisonment is "cruel, inhuman, and degrading" in the words of Amnesty International. That the President of Israel can publicly proclaim this barbarism to be "not enough" is something which should rouse even those most dreamy about Israel.
But as I have tried to demonstrate, much is at stake in addition to Mordechai Vanunu's human rights. In turn, regaining Vanunu's human rights depends on much larger numbers of Israeli citizens rejecting their tribal culture with its ultimately suicidal vision of peace through supreme power.
Mordecai Briemberg is on the board of directors of the Near East Cultural and Educational Foundation of Canada. He is editor of It Was, It Was Not: Essays and Art on the War Against Iraq.
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