Where are the weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East? Ask Mordechai Vanunu. He knows, all too well. On March 24, 1988, Vanunu was convicted of treason by an Israeli court for revealing the existence of Israel’s secret nuclear arsenal at the Dimona facility, where he worked as a technician. Imprisoned since that time, held for the most part in solitary confinement, he is scheduled for release on April 21. Vanunu’s family and friends say he has no more secrets to reveal, but the Israeli government is petrified, and is placing “restrictions” on him because of “security concerns.” What Tel Aviv is really concerned about, however, is its image abroad.
Vanunu’s story how he was abducted by the Mossad after leaking details of Israel’s illegal nuclear program to the London Sunday Times underscores not only the utter ruthlessness with which the Israelis pursue their interests, but also highlights the peculiar deference paid them by their enablers in the West. Lured from London to Rome by the voluptuous “Cindy,” a.k.a. Cheryl Hanin, Vanunu was drugged, chained, put in a box, and shipped to Israel as diplomatic cargo.
This unusual mode of transportation was utilized presumably as a subterfuge the “diplomatic” rubric meant authorities could not inspect the box although one wonders why they bothered. That this happened with the full complicity of the Italian government a magistrate ruled in 1988 that there was “insufficient evidence” to prove Vanunu had been abducted is indisputable. Equally certain is the complicity of the Brits, who tracked down Vanunu in London, and turned him over to the tender mercies of the Mossad. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was eager to help, but just didn’t want the kidnapping to occur in London. That’s why they brought in Ms. Hanin, who reportedly used what one news account called her “womanly skills” to reel in their catch.
The Israelis are worried about Vanunu, not because he has any new secrets to reveal, but because he reminds us of truths that have long been known and steadfastly ignored. We never had evidence of Iraqi WMD, yet proof of Israel’s nuclear arsenal has been staring us in the face for 16 years. By the time Dick Cheney, Condi Rice, and the “Office of Special Plans” were conjuring visions of a nuclear-armed Saddam igniting mushroom clouds based on forgeries, tall tales peddled by Iraqi exiles, and a couple of aluminum tubes Israel’s nuclear program had already churned out hundreds of nuclear weapons.
The Israeli government is afraid of Vanunu, and seeks to impose restrictions on his movements and public utterances because they are not at all eager to draw attention to their nuclear stockpile. And with good reason. While the Israeli state is justly proud of its military capabilities, and touts them at every opportunity, it was only in 1998 that former Prime Minister Shimon Peres admitted his nation has nukes, claiming that they “built a nuclear option, not in order to have a Hiroshima but an Oslo.”
Gee, that’s funny, but didn’t the Iraqis say something similar after the Israelis bombed the reactor at Osirak? Ah, but I’m committing the sin of “moral equivalence,” because, you see, an Israeli nuke is a peace bomb, while an Iraqi nuke is a “weapon of mass destruction.”
The Israelis are trying to shut up Vanunu, even though his story is already well known, because, aside from being untimely, any focus on Israel’s nuclear weapons arsenal is bound to raise the question of how likely it is to be used.
After all, even if Saddam Hussein had somehow acquired nuclear weapons, does anybody believe he would actually have used them, against the U.S. or anybody else? Deterrence worked with Joe Stalin, and stood us in good stead during the whole of the Cold War era: the threat of complete annihilation would surely have prevented the Iraqis from initiating a nuclear exchange.
But is Israel subject to the same constraints?
If, for some reason, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon believed Israel was in imminent danger, and decided to exercise the nuclear “option,” incinerating, say, Tehran, what sort of retaliation would ensue and from whom?
The U.S. would certainly oppose such a heinous act, but it would hardly go to war with Israel. The only Islamic nuclear power, Pakistan, would be unlikely to retaliate either. So who, or what, is deterring Israel from using its nuclear capability, or threatening to, and dominating the Middle East?
Without a deterrent, the possibility that Israel will actually use its nuclear capability in some future war takes on worrisome dimensions. Faced with what its rulers see as a life-and-death decision, with Israel’s very survival supposedly at stake, it is not hard to imagine Sharon or some even nuttier future Prime Minister ordering a “preemptive” nuclear first strike.
The consequences, for Israel, would be severe, but not unendurable. It would become a pariah state, but its militant partisans maintain that this is already the case, and, in any event, Israel has to look out for its own interests. It has always stood alone. So what else is new?
Israel, as George W. Bush so often reminds us, has “a right to defend itself.” The deadly logic of this sinister mantra, dutifully repeated by U.S. government officials on the occasion of every Israeli atrocity, leads directly to that mushroom cloud famously referred to by Condi Rice:
“The problem here is that there will always be some uncertainty about how quickly he can acquire nuclear weapons. But we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.”
By “he,” Rice meant Saddam Hussein, but Ariel Sharon is more like it. There is no uncertainty about the Israeli Prime Minister’s capacity to plunge the Middle East into a nuclear maelstrom. Who, after all, has the power to stop him?
The Israeli Sparta could conceivably blackmail the entire region. If this is the intent of the U.S., which has now imposed sanctions on Syria for supposedly pursuing “weapons of mass destruction,” then our policy could not be more effective. That this saddles us with a grave moral burden is a thought that seems not to have crossed anyone’s mind.
Without pressure from the international community, including especially the United States, its principal ally and deep pockets, Israel will never give up its weapons of mass destruction: Instead of going after WMD where we know they are, we are enabling and encouraging the Israelis to brandish them. If and when they ultimately use their nukes, the horror will have “made in America” stamped all over it.
The news that a poll of Europeans showed 60 percent believed Israel to be the main danger to peace was greeted by the Amen Corner as proof of “anti-Semitism,” but it is nothing of the sort: it is merely a coldly objective evaluation of the known facts. Israel, the most dangerous, if not exactly the biggest troublemaker on earth sounds about right to me.