Shortly before his release Wednesday from the Shikma prison in Ashkelon, Mordechai Vanunu said one true thing: "I won. I'll be free. The gates and the locks will be opened. They didn't succeed in breaking me or driving me mad all these years in solitary confinement."
Indeed Vanunu has won. It isn't every ex-con who, after 18 years, walks out of prison into the arms of a small army of supporters, including a Nobel Peace Laureate, an Oscar nominee and a couple of British members of parliament. It isn't every ex-con who gets respectful editorial treatment in newspapers from Sydney to London. It isn't every ex-con for whom a luxury seaside flat is arranged.
Ordinarily, this is the sort of treatment given to a serious political dissident, a Wei Jingsheng or Natan Sharansky. That Vanunu should get it as well suggests that, to his admirers, he stands in relation to Israel as Sharansky stood in relation to the USSR.
WISDOM, WRITES essayist and critic Paul Berman, "consists of the ability to be shocked." That's an ability that's been greatly dulled in Israel over the past 42 months of outrage. But let's try again to be shocked, starting with a piece by Ed O'Loughlin of the Sydney Morning Herald, which I am told is a reputable paper.
The gist of his April 17 report is captured by the paper's editorial summary: "Whistleblower's crime was to offend against Israel's unifying creeds." Let's parse that.
First, "whistleblower." Last week, Gerald Steinberg noted in the Jerusalem Post that whistleblower "refers to individuals who go public with information on corrupt practices and violations of the law, enabling the constituted authorities to take over and hold the culprits accountable through due process of law." Vanunu did nothing of the sort. Instead, he "imposed his personal views on the elected officials and representatives of the Israeli government," thereby violating "due process of law and the core principles of democracy."
Steinberg's argument strikes me as unassailable. But the important point here isn't verbal accuracy. It's journalistic balance. Given there's a controversy over whether to describe Vanunu as a traitor or whistleblower, why does O'Loughlin choose whistleblower? Great care is taken by the news media to find neutral descriptors for people Israelis call terrorists and Palestinians call martyrs. In Vanunu's case, no such effort is made.
So here's an open-and-shut case of bias in the first word of O'Loughlin's article. Next: "Vanunu's crime was to offend grievously against Israel's unifying creeds - Zionism, Jewish identity and total loyalty to the government on questions of national security." That is, Vanunu became "involved with left-wing and pro-Palestinian causes"; converted to Anglicanism; and leaked information on the Dimona reactor to the Sunday Times. "The fact that he was due to obtain $US100,000 from a related book deal and serialization deal make him doubly odious."
This passage marks O'Loughlin's departure from the realm of bias to flat-out mendacity. Vanunu's crime, in fact, was to violate the terms of his security clearance at Dimona. Terms he signed. This is nothing strange: Every government on earth swears certain people to secrecy and imposes high penalties, including lengthy jail sentences, for any breach. The Jerusalem Post has obtained a copy of Vanunu's clearance, and we reproduce and translate it alongside.
But nowhere is this detail mentioned in O'Loughlin's report. Instead, Vanunu is described as a man who suffered mainly for rejecting the political, religious, and military shibboleths of the Jewish state. Vanunu didn't break Israel's law, you see. He rejected its anti-Palestinian, anti-Christian, militaristic culture, and in Israel what you get for that is long years in solitary.
Credulous Australian readers may be forgiven for believing this, but O'Loughlin cannot be forgiven for reporting it. Pro-Palestinian views forbidden? Please: This newspaper has a Palestinian columnist in Daoud Kuttab and Haaretz regularly publishes the work of avowed anti-Zionists such as Meron Benvenisti and Haim Hanegbi. As for religion, Israelis freely dabble in everything from Buddhism to Baptism. As for militarism, Israel has one of the most active peace movements anywhere.
It goes on. O'Loughlin writes that Vanunu was convicted of treason and espionage "even though he made no attempt to provide his secrets to foreign or hostile powers." How broadcasting those secrets publicly and so to every foreign or hostile power differs from this in consequence if not intent to Israel is not explained.
O'Loughlin also writes that Vanunu's years in solitary confinement were "ostensibly on security grounds." Note ostensibly. What O'Loughlin omits is that in his prison writings Vanunu rendered precise sketches of the Dimona plant and, knowing he was being censored, wrote, "Don't worry, I'll fill you in when I am freed."
SO MUCH is contained in O'Loughlin's article. It would have been less egregious if he had bothered to explain the Israeli position or even quote an Israeli spokesperson. But no such effort is made. The floor is Vanunu's alone.
The same goes for much of the rest of the news media. Vanunu, The Guardian editorialized this week, "may be a traitor to the Israeli state... but in exposing a secret which needed to be told he has shown a higher duty to wider humanity." The Financial Times says the remaining restrictions on Vanunu's freedom "border on the sadistic."
A couple of points here. If an Israeli traitor is a hero to "wider humanity" and therefore in a category with Oleg Penkovsky and Claus von Stauffenberg, then Israel has no right to exist. As for sadism, it seems curious that any truly sadistic state would have bothered to release Vanunu at all, instead of arranging an accident in prison or executing him outright. That Vanunu can emerge from prison as he did, despite being detested universally by Israelis, the security establishment most of all, testifies to the scrupulousness of the Israeli justice system, not its cruelty.
The larger point made about Vanunu is that the West cannot demand the wider Middle East to be disarmed of weapons of mass destruction without demanding as much from Israel. But the underlying assumption is that a nuclear-armed Israel is neither more nor less a threat to the peace of the world than, say, a nuclear-armed Syria. Do serious people actually believe this? Well, yes. They also believe that if Israel disarmed unilaterally, Israel's enemies would have no reason to seek WMD.
Even this argument is disingenuous: It isn't so much that Vanunu's admirers want Israel to disarm so that others may follow; it's that they want only Israel to disarm. Thus Vanunu, who in 1981 protested the destruction of the Osirak reactor, now says he wants to see Dimona destroyed just as Osirak was. And The Guardian, which claims in its Vanunu leader to advocate a nuclear-free Middle East, editorialized in September 2003 that "Iran does have one deeply persuasive reason for acquiring nuclear arms: national security." "Iran's fears are real," went the title. Apparently, however, Israel's fears are not real.
ZEH HAFUCH, say Israelis: It's upside down. In the imagination of much of the West today, Palestinian terrorism is a response to Israeli militarism; Yasser Arafat is a democrat and Ariel Sharon is a strongman; and the Arab and Muslim worlds only seek WMD to defend against aggressive Israel.
It is in this climate of moral inversion and reverse causality that a man like Vanunu can emerge as a hero to right-thinkers everywhere. The rest of us should think hard about what that means before the shock is absorbed without being felt.