In 1986, Mordechai Vanunu, an engineer at the Dimona nuclear centre, revealed to the Sunday Times the existence of the secret Israeli nuclear program. He was Kidnapped in Italy by the Israeli secret services following his contacts with the British reporters and before the publication of the article with his revelations, he was judged behind doors and jailed for 18 years. Although he is still banned from contacting reporters, Mordechai Vanunu answers Silvia Cattori’s questions in an exclusive interview for Voltaire Network.
Silvia Cattori: What was your job in Israel before the Mossad agents kidnapped you in Rome, in October 1986?
Mordechai Vanunu: I had been working for 9 years in the Dimona weapons research centre in the province of Beer Sheva. Just before I quit that job, in 1986, I took photos of the interior of the factory to show the world that Israel was hiding a nuclear secret. I was in charge of producing radioactive elements for the manufacture of atomic bombs. I knew exactly the amount of fissile material produced, the elements used and the kind of bombs that were being manufactured.
Silvia Cattori: Wasn’t it a big risk for you to reveal to the world that your own country had nuclear weapons?
Mordechai Vanunu: If I decided to do it, it was because Israeli authorities were lying. They constantly said that Israel’s political leaders had no intentions of acquiring nuclear weapons. However, they were producing amounts of radioactive substances that could only serve that goal: manufacturing nuclear weapons. They were significant amounts. I calculated that at that time, in 1986, they already had 200 atomic bombs. They had also started to manufacture hydrogen bombs, very powerful ones. So I decided to reveal what they were secretly doing. I also wanted to prevent the Israelis from using atomic bombs and to avoid a nuclear war in the Middle East. I wanted to contribute to peace in the region. Israel, having such extremely powerful weapons, could work for peace. It had no reason to fear a Palestinian or even an Arab threat as it had the necessary weapons to survive.
Silvia Cattori: Were you worried about security in the region?
Mordechai Vanunu: Yes, that is right. Of course, I did not do it for the Israeli people. Israelis had elected that government and that government had decided to produce nuclear weapons. All Israelis follow very closely the policy of the Israeli government… But, as far as I am concerned, I was acting by taking into account the point of view of humankind, of a human being, of all human beings of the Middle East and also of the world. Because many other countries could do what Israel had done
.So I decided, in the interest of humanity, to reveal the danger that Israel’s secret nuclear weapons represented. We were in the middle of the Cold War and nuclear weapons proliferated. They were extending to some countries like South Africa. The danger posed by nuclear weapons was real. Now that danger has decreased.
Silvia Cattori: Did you know what you were exposing yourself to? Why did it have to be you and not anyone else who took such a big risk?
Mordechai Vanunu: Of course I knew the risks. No one could have done what I did. I knew I was messing around with the Israeli government. It was not like I was attacking private interests. I knew I was directly messing around with the Israeli government and the Israeli Jewish state. Thus, I knew they could punish me, kill me or do whatever they wanted. But I had the responsibility of telling the truth to the world. I was the only one who could do it, so I had to do it no matter what the risks might have been.
Silvia Cattori: Did you have the support of your family?
Mordechai Vanunu: The members of my family were unable to understand my decision. What most disturbed them was the fact that I had become a Christian. For them that was more painful than the fact that I had revealed Israel’s nuclear secrets... I respect them and they respect my life. We have maintained good relations but we do not see each other anymore.
Silvia Cattori: Do you feel alone?
Mordechai Vanunu: Yes, I am alone here, in St. George Cathedral. But I have a lot of friends who support me.
Silvia Cattori: In what conditions were you judged and incarcerated?
Mordechai Vanunu: The trial was kept in the most absolute secrecy. I was alone with my lawyer. I was condemned for espionage and high treason. Authorities took revenge by keeping me isolated during the entire trial process. They would not authorize anyone to talk to me and I was banned from speaking to the press, which published a lot of distorted information about me. The Israeli government used all its media influence to brainwash public opinion and the judges, who were finally convinced that I had to be sent to jail. Therefore the trial took place secretly and the press had no access to the truth, they could not hear me. The people were convinced that I was a traitor, a spy, a criminal. There was not an atom of justice in that trial. But it was not only the trial. The cruellest thing was the isolation inside the prison. They did not only punish me by putting me into jail but also by keeping me completely isolated, by constantly spying on me and by applying vicious and cruel treatments. They tried to make me feel in despair and make me regret what I had done. I was held incommunicado for 18 years and I was in complete isolation for 11 years and a half. The first year, they put cameras in my cell and they kept the light on for three consecutive years! Their spies constantly hit me and they would not let me sleep. I was subjected to a very cruel treatment. They tried to break me into submission. My goal was to survive and I made it!
Silvia Cattori: You were very lucky that they did not hang you as then Justice Minister Tommy Lapid wanted. You resisted and you were finally released on April 21, 2004. You were 50 years old!
Mordechai Vanunu: They released me because I had served my 18-year imprisonment. They wanted to kill me. But the Israeli government finally decided not to do it.
Silvia Cattori: In April 2004, television channels aired your release from prison. It was then that the world knew what had happened. You looked happy, spirited and determined, looking nothing like a broken man…
Mordechai Vanunu: Leaving prison, talking to the world, to celebrate, after 18 years in prison and under complete prohibition, it was a great moment…
Silvia Cattori: Then, they could not break you mentally?
Mordechai Vanunu: Absolutely not. My goal was to get out of there and to speak to the world, letting Israeli authorities know that they had failed. My goal was to survive and that was my biggest victory over all those espionage organizations. They managed to kidnap me, to drag me to their court, to keep me isolated for 18 years… and I survived all that. Of course, I suffered. But I survived. In spite of all their crimes I am still alive. Even my health is excellent! I am strong. Certainly, that is why I went through the test.
Silvia Cattori:What helped you resist?
Mordechai Vanunu: My strength. The fact that I was convinced that what I had done was right. My determination to make them understand that, in spite of everything they could do to punish me, I was going to stay alive.
Silvia Cattori: What is the biggest obstacle that you are facing now?
Mordechai Vanunu: They do not allow me to leave Israel. They released me from prison but now I am in a bigger cell: Israel. I would like to leave this country and enjoy freedom. I am sick and tired of the Israeli power. The army can come to arrest me and punish me anytime. I feel like I am at their mercy. I would like to live far away from here…
Silvia Cattori: Will Israel let you leave the country?
Mordechai Vanunu: I don’t know. They said that I could not leave Israel for a year. Then, when a year passed by, they renewed the ban for another year that ends next April. But they can do it as many times as they wish…
Silvia Cattori: What is your opinion about the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty knowing that, in the case of Israel, “nuclear ambiguity” is tolerated while Iran is kept under pressure, even when the latter is submitted to inspections?
Mordechai Vanunu: All countries should be open to international inspections and to tell the truth about what they are secretly doing in their nuclear facilities. Israel has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Almost 180 countries have done it, including all Arab countries. Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan… all Israeli neighbours have opened their borders to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Israel is the worst example. It is the only country that has refused to sign the treaty. The United States and Europe should start to pay attention to the Israeli case. Israel must be treated like any other country. We have to put an end to hypocrisy and to make Israel sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Israel has to accept the IAEA inspectors in Dimona.
Silvia Cattori: Iran, which complies with its obligations and accepts the UN inspections, is threatened to be sanctioned however. But, nothing is done in the case of Israel that has nuclear weapons and rejects the IAEA inspections. Why are the United States and Europe conducting this “double standard” policy?
Mordecha Vanunu: Yes, and it is even worse than what you are saying. Not only they are not taking any measures but they are also secretly helping Israel. There is a secret cooperation between Israel and the United States, Great Britain and France. These countries have decided to support Israel’s nuclear might because they want Israel to be at their service as a colonial country that guarantees their control of the Middle East, to gain access to oil reserves in the region and to keep the Arabs living in underdevelopment and amid fratricidal conflicts. That is the main reason of that cooperation.
Silvia Cattori: Isn’t Iran a threat, as Israel and the United States claim?
Mordechai Vanunu: Under the control of the IAEA, Iran does not pose any threat. Western experts perfectly know the nature of the Iranian nuclear program, contrary to Israel, which does not let anyone enter its nuclear facilities. That is why Iran decided to take a step forward and to tell the world: “You can not demand more transparency from us while closing your eyes to what is happening in Israel!” The Arabs have known for 40 years that Israel has atomic bombs and nobody does anything about it. As long as the world continues to ignore Israel’s atomic weapons, they will not have the moral authority to say anything about Iran. If the world is really concerned, if they want to put an end to nuclear proliferation, then they have to start from the beginning, that is, Israel!
Silvia Cattori: It must be very annoying for you to hear Israel, a violator of regulations, say that it is ready to bomb Iran, a country that has not broken any rules thus far!
Mordechai Vanunu: Yes, that drives me crazy. We have no reason to criticize Iran. Before we do anything against any country we have to take care of the Israeli case. If anyone wants to do anything against Iran, first he has to deal with Israel. The world cannot ignore what Israel has been doing over the past 40 years… The United States should make Israel sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It is about time that Europe acknowledges that Israel has nuclear weapons. The Arab world should be very concerned about the fact that the entire world is criticizing Iran, which does not have nuclear weapons, while ignoring Israel.
Silvia Cattori: What states cooperated with Israel?
Mordechai Vanunu: Israel helped France and Great Britain in their campaign against Egypt in 1956. After the operation of Suez, France and Great Britain began cooperating with the Israeli nuclear program as a way to reciprocate the support that Israel had given them during that war.
Silvia Cattori: Didn’t South Africa help Israel until 1991?
Mordechai Vanunu: It was precisely in South Africa, in the desert, that Israel carried out its nuclear tests…
Silvia Cattori: It seems that in the 1960s, President Kennedy asked that inspections be carried out in Dimona, Israel. Do you see any links between that request and his assassination?
Mordechai Vanunu: In believe that, at that time, the United States opposed the Israeli nuclear program. Kennedy tried to stop Israel but he was assassinated before he could do it. For me, his assassination had to do with the proliferation of nuclear weapons in Israel and in other countries. Those who killed him were in favour of nuclear proliferation. Thanks to his death, proliferation continued. In fact, presidents Johnson and Nixon, who succeeded Kennedy, saw no inconvenience with that. They let Israel act. We can simply see that there was a change in that direction after Kennedy’s assassination…
Silvia Cattori: Your denunciation did not make Israel change its secrecy around the matter. Israel managed to have all the big power not to act against it. Was Israel’s strategy, contrary to transparency, effective?
Mordechai Vanunu: Yes, we have to admit it. Israel is a case that has to be studied. How can a small country defy the whole world and continue with an aggressive policy, and not worry about anyone else? Yes, Israelis were able to do it then. But, today the world has changed. The Cold War is over. Communism was defeated. The world marches toward peace. We can now see that nuclear weapons will not help Israel. Now that Israel has to show that it wants peace and how to attain it, what is the use of nuclear weapons? Israel’s nuclear policy was possible in the context of the Cold War. Today we have to make Israel to adopt a new policy, showing the world that it wants peace and that it recognizes that it does not need nuclear weapons.
Silvia Cattori: In the 1950s, Israel already had significant armaments. What reason did it have then to acquire the nuclear weapon?
Mordechai Vanunu: A small country such as Israel does not have any valid reason to have such an enormous amount of atomic weapons. It is as though Israel had gone into a frenzy over its nuclear weapons program. It is impossible to use a nuclear weapon in the region! If a nuclear weapon were used against Syria, Egypt or Jordan, the radioactive effects would also hurt Israel. To this day, Israelis have not been able to discuss the issue among them. However, it is a problem that worries everyone in the world. We are waiting for Israel’s answer.
Silvia Cattori: For Israel, isn’t it rather a weapon that allows it to maintain its status quo, as an instrument for political blackmail, to be able to discuss in equal terms with the big powers – starting with the United States – and not to concede anything to the Arabs, that Israel has plundered and who are weak in the military field?
Mordechai Vanunu: That is right. Israel uses the power of its weapons to impose its policies. Israel has a lot of power; it crushes with arrogance all its neighbours. Not even the United States can tell Israel what to do! Europe is now seeing the magnitude of Israel’s power. Without using the atomic bomb and not even threatening to use the nuclear weapon, Israelis can impose their power, they can do as they please. They can build a wall; they can build colonies in Palestine… No one can tell them they cannot do it because they are extremely powerful
. This is the result of their political blackmail. They can use their nuclear weapons against any country that tries to stop their aggressive policy against the Palestinians. That is the current situation. The whole world knows it. And there is another reason why the United States and Europe do not do anything. They know the magnitude of Israel’s power. Thus, the best way to oppose Israel is making the world aware of the truth and to study what is happening in that country with regard to atomic weapons until they give it up.
Silvia Cattori: Did Israel consider the possibility of using the nuclear weapon against its Arab neighbours in 1973?
Mordechai Vanunu: Yes. In 1973 Israel was ready to use atomic bombs against Syria… and Egypt.
Silvia Cattori: You suffered a lot for having revealed a secret of state. Finally… what was the result?
Mordechai Vanunu: First, the world now has evidence that Israel has atomic weapons. From now on, no one can ignore the truth as to the Israeli nuclear program. After that, Israel was prevented from resorting to that kind of weapons. Another result is that the world became aware of what this small Jewish state was secretly doing. And the world also knew about the lies and misinformation upon which this state lies. Knowing that a small country like Israel was able to manufacture 200 atomic bombs made the world aware of its behaviour. The fear that another small country could do the same made the world think about ways to stop nuclear proliferation and to prevent Israel from helping other countries to use those weapons in the future. When the world became aware of what Israel was secretly doing, the fear of nuclear proliferation increased. The world became aware of Israel’s power and began to pressure this country to reach peace with the Palestinians and the Arab world. Israel no longer had a reason to affirm that it feared its Arab neighbours as it had, since the 1950s, plenty of weapons to guarantee its own security.
Silvia Cattori: Why does Israel still chase you?
Mordechai Vanunu: What I did was very harmful for all of Israel’s political moves! They were forced to change their plans. Israel’s secret nuclear policy was created by Shimon Peres. And that policy of secretly manufacturing nuclear weapons was destroyed! After that denunciation, Israel had to change its direction and to make new plans. What we see today is a consequence of what I did. They had to invent other types of weapons. Now, they are building their wall, check points, settlements and they managed to make the Jewish society a more religious one, more nationalist and more racist instead of taking another path, instead of understanding that the only possible solution is peace, instead of recognizing that the Palestinians have the same rights and instead of putting an end to the conflict. What Israel wants is to continue building its wall and its settlements!
Silvia Cattori: So, what you did was a great deed!
Mordecha Vanunu: As a human being, I did something for the security and respect of humankind. All countries have to respect us, everyone of us!, as human beings, no matter what our religion might be, whether we are Jews, Christians, Muslims or Buddhists… Israel has a big problem: it is a country that does not respect human beings. The result is devastating for Israel’s image. The state of Israel is far from being a democracy. The Jewish state is racist. The whole world should know that Israel practices a policy of apartheid. If you are a Jew, you can do whatever you want and go wherever you want. If you are not a Jew, you have no rights. That racism is the real problem that Israel faces. Israel is completely unable to prove that it is a democracy. No one can accept that racist state, neither the United States nor Europe. In any case, they could accept Israel’s nuclear weapons but… how can they justify this state of fascist apartheid?
Silvia Cattori: It looks like you refuse to recognize the legitimacy of that State
Mordechai Vanunu: Of course. That is what I said when I was released from jail: we cannot accept this Jewish state. The Israeli Jewish state is the opposite of a democracy. We need a state for all its citizens, regardless of their religious beliefs. The solution is a sole state for all citizens of all religions, as it is in democracies like France or Switzerland, and not only a state for Jews. A Jewish state has absolutely no reason to exist. Jews do not need a fundamentalist regime like that of Iran. People need a real democracy that respects human beings. Today we have two fundamentalist regimes in the Middle East: Iran and Israel. But, Israel is far more fundamentalist than Iran!
Silvia Cattori: Then for you, Israel is a bigger threat than Iran?
Mordechai Vanunu: Of course it is. We all know how much the Israelis have been making the Palestinian people suffer for more than 50 years! It is about time that the world pays attention to the Palestinian Holocaust. The Palestinians have suffered a lot, for a long time, because of that oppression! The Jews do not respect them and not even consider them as human beings. They do not recognize any of their rights and still chase them, putting their lives in danger and, consequently, their future too.
Silvia Cattori: What would you say to my country, Switzerland, the repository of the Geneva Conventions?
Mordechai Vanunu: Switzerland should clearly and loudly condemn the racist policy of Israel, that is, all the violations of the Palestinians’ rights, let them be Muslims or Christians. All countries must demand that Israel respect non-Jewish people as human beings. In fact, I do not have the right to speak with you; I am not authorized to speak to foreigners. Doing it in spite of the ban is a risk that I am taking. Israel used the compensations for the holocaust to build weapons, to destroy houses and Palestinian assets. I wish your country could grant me a passport and help me out of Israel. Life is very tough here. If you are a Jew, there is no problem. If not, or if you cease to be one, you are treated with no respect.
In addition to the translations indicated at the bottom of the page, this interview was also translated into:
Interview done by Silvia Cattori in October 2005.