Misplaced Support for Vannunu
Jerusalem Post, April 16, 1998


"If their goal is to change Israel's nuclear deterrent policy, Vannunu's supporters would be well advised to focus their efforts on removing the threats that have led to this policy."

A few weeks after the British Foreign Minister, Robin Cook, came to tell us how to negotiate with the Palestinians, a number of Labor Party politicians are planning to demonstrate on behalf of Mordechai Vannunu. His actions, first renouncing his religion, then selling some secrets regarding the Israeli nuclear program to a newspaper, and most recently, renouncing his parents, reflect deep psychological problems. The majority of Israelis, ranging across the political spectrum, view the former technician at the Dimona nuclear complex as Israel's most notorious traitor whose actions might have endangered Israeli security and even survival.

In contrast, the unreformed members of the British Labour Party passionately believe that Israel's ambiguous nuclear policy is a mistake, and support revealing all of the secrets of the Israeli deterrent. They have even nominated Vannunu for the Noble Peace Prize. However, they are ignorant of the most basic issues, and too arrogant and self-righteous to listen to differing views or to learn about the logic behind the Israeli policy.

Beyond the paternalist remnants of colonialism, these actions reflect a universal goal of ridding the world of nuclear weapons. In the 1920s, the British Left led the pacifist movement, opposing military budgets and military preparedness. This was a noble goal, which left England unprepared to stop or even deter Hitler and the Germany army. Today's idealists and the descendants of the pacifists focus on the effort to create a nuclear free world. They adopted the confused Vannunu when he claimed to be joining in their crusade, revealed the "secrets of Dimona", was lured back to Israel and jailed for espionage.

The absence of any significant support in Israel for Vannunu's antics reflects the very real security dilemmas which must of us have faced for 50 years. Israel remains a reluctant nuclear power, and has never tested or openly declared possession of a nuclear weapon. The nuclear deterrent option remains an ambiguous capability and the "weapon last resort" to prevent attacks that threaten national survival or thousands of causalities. With a very small territory, no strategic depth in which to absorb a major attack, and outnumbered by at least three to one in conventional weapons and ground forces, Israel has relied on the threat of massive deterrence to neutralize existential threats. This policy seems to have been successful, most recently in 1991, when Saddam Hussein did not risk using biological or chemical warheads in the Scud missiles he launched against Israel.

However, Vannunu unilaterally decided to "reformulate" Israeli policy by selling his information and some illicit pictures taken in the Dimona plant to the London Sunday Times. Nobody elected him, and he did not attempt to convince the Israeli public or decision makers of his views. There is an ongoing public discussion regarding Israel's policies in this critical area, but neither Vannunu nor his supporters abroad have ever attempted to participate. Instead, the emotionally frustrated Vannunu simply left Israel (unhindered, despite his classified work), went to Australia, became a Christian, and found a buyer for his secrets. He may not have convinced anyone of the wisdom of his views, but he did get the attention he craves.

None of this is enough to justify nominating Vannunu for a Noble Peace Prize or demonstrating on his behalf. In fact, these demonstrations are further evidence that for these "idealists", Jewish survival and Israeli security can be readily sacrificed for the "greater good". Like Vannunu himself, his foreign supporters seem to be incapable of analyzing the basis for the Israeli deterrence policy, and the alternatives. Serious efforts to examine the options conclude that under current conditions, the current policy of nuclear ambiguity is the optimum approach. This provides for credible deterrence and supports the peace process by removing the Arab military option, without preventing an eventual Middle East nuclear weapons free zone if all the external threats are removed.

If their goal is to change Israeli policy, Vannunu's supporters would be well advised to focus their efforts on removing the threats to Israel. They could go to Iraq and help UNSCOM locate Saddam Hussein's remaining chemical and biological weapons, or to Teheran to lead mass demonstrations against the Iranian nuclear efforts. They might also considering placing notices in Syrian newspapers calling on President Assad to give up his chemical weapons and missiles directed against Israel. In Cairo, they might try to organize intellectuals to protest the diversion of billions of dollars from vital economic development every year for the purchase of new tanks, combat aircraft, and a variety of missiles. Perhaps these well meaning pacifists will ask President Mubarak why Egypt, with its huge territory and lack of enemies, has been so eager to strip Israel of its nuclear deterrent, while refusing to consider limitations on its massive conventional army. Once they have succeeded in these missions, there will be no reason for Israel to maintain its deterrent, and no more obstacles to a Nuclear Free Middle East.