On Thursday, Mordechai Vanunu was taken from his temporary refuge in St. George's Cathedral in East Jerusalem and charged with 21 counts of violating the terms of his semi-freedom. It was not the first time that he had been called to the prosecutor's office, but since his case is due to be reviewed by the Israeli government early in April, this may be a warning of what is to come.
What the government now has to do is to decide whether to let Vanunu leave the country, or whether to reimpose, for a second year, the tough restrictions under which he has lived since his release from prison: no contact with foreign journalists, no freedom to leave Israel, permission to move from Jerusalem only on condition that he reports each day to the police.
Vanunu has breached the first condition repeatedly, giving interviews to all who make the journey to East Jerusalem. When able to, he has used the Internet to keep in touch with reporters, human rights groups and friends all over the world. The question now is whether Israel decides to punish him further.
Almost 20 years ago, Vanunu was a young Israeli nuclear technician, working at the research reactor at Dimona in the Negev Desert. Laid off in 1985, he used his severance pay to travel around the world. Increasingly troubled by the realization that Israel, though denying it, had in fact become a nuclear power, he had taken photographs inside the plant before he left. When he reached Sydney, he told new friends at an Anglican church, where he began the process of converting from Judaism to Christianity, of his fears. The news reached the Sunday Times in London, which flew him to England, where he was debriefed by British scientists.
Then, before the story could appear, Vanunu was lured to Rome by a young woman. On arrival, he was overpowered by two men, injected with a powerful drug, smuggled onto a ship and taken to Israel. The next that was heard of him was that he had been convicted of espionage and treason at a closed trial and jailed for 18 years.
Vanunu was then 34. He is now 51, a slight, spare man who holds himself very still. He receives visitors in the inner courtyard of St. George's Cathedral, where he occupies one of the guest rooms.
The first 11 years of his detention were, he says, the worst. Kept in solitary confinement, he was permitted a half-hour visit every two weeks from his family - in his case, two of his brothers, since his parents and eight other siblings, deeply religious Jews offended by his conversion and his actions, rejected him. He was locked in his cell for 22 hours every day. He prayed, he thought, he wrote, he watched television, he exercised, he ate.
He asked for books on philosophy and history, and some were given to him. He studied Kant, Camus, Nietzsche and Sartre. Later, when he was granted a video player, he watched opera: Mozart, Verdi, Wagner. By standing on a chair in his cell, he could just see a small square of sky.
On his release, Vanunu asked for sanctuary at St. George's. He has taken to wandering around the streets of East Jerusalem. He continues to provoke the Israeli authorities. One of his most recent allegations was that Israel was behind the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, who was, Vanunu maintains, exerting pressure on Israel to shed light on the Dimona nuclear plant. Some of Vanunu's pronouncements have worried friends; they fear that, cut off for so long from contact with friends, colleagues and the outside world, he has lost his once sure ear for analysis and context. They worry too that if he stays in Israel he may be in danger from extremists.
That Israel is a nuclear power is no longer seriously in question. But by maintaining its policy of "nuclear ambiguity" and punishing and vilifying those who try to break this secrecy, Israel has created a black hole, a forbidden area, where the normal laws of democracy do not seem to apply. The Israeli public and the rest of the world are effectively prevented from asking the questions usual in other democracies - about cost, alternatives and accountability.
In this, the Israeli government is helped by the U.S. policy of attacking evil regimes which seek nuclear arsenals while tolerating their possession by states considered trustworthy. Yet bringing Israel's nuclear weapons out into the open, and putting them on the table as part of a wider regional Middle Eastern peace deal, might be the only way to prevent other neighboring states from building their own bombs.
Nothing Vanunu says is any longer of the slightest threat to Israel. But support for Vanunu within Israel is very limited. In a spirit of revenge, the Israelis may decide that his absurd punishment should continue.
Caroline Moorehead is the author of ‘‘Human Cargo: A Journey Among Refugees.’’
© 2005 International Herald Tribune