Mordechai Vanunu and the Perils of Speaking English

by Jerry Levin, CPT
Hebron, West Bank, Palestine
December 2, 2006

The last time I spoke at length with Mordechai Vanunu was in February. That was after the latest session in a Jerusalem court room where the Israeli government is attempting to convict him for breaking its historically unique set of restrictions on his freedom of speech and movement. He is not allowed to leave the country; he must report his movements outside of Jerusalem to the police and let them know where he is sleeping every night; he is not allowed to go to any foreign embassy or to Ben Gurion Airport; and finally he must not speak to foreigners, especially the foreign press.

That last restriction, he has openly challenged. And for that the government wants to put him away…again. As if eighteen years in isolation in an Israeli prison for blowing the whistle back in 1986 on its atomic and hydrogen bomb making program wasn't enough retribution, or as he puts it, "enough revenge."

He and his legal team have been arguing that the case is faulty for both technical reasons and on its merits; and they had been hopeful that the charges would be dropped by early June. But that didn't happen. I asked Mordechai, why?

He answered, "The judge said he would not dismiss the case because there is some misconduct by me that violates these orders and so I should explain it."

"Specifically what misconduct?"

"Talking to the media, making interviews. But we are going to claim that it is not my job to go and ask everyone, `Can I see your ID card?' Also I am talking about my private life, my political views not nuclear secrets. And I am not speaking in Hebrew. I am speaking in English. That is my crime, speaking in English. Because according to these orders, if I speak in Hebrew to the Israeli press – saying the same thing – I am not committing a crime. So what is this?"

"So what is next? Are you going to testify?"

"We decided it better that I not testify because I cannot deny that I give the interviews. They have all the proof that I speak to foreign media. So its better not to answer questions, `why you did it?' I already explain why to the police. Instead we want to bring the army general who signed the orders not to speak to foreigners and ask him why he did it."

So in late November Mordechai's lead attorney, Avigdor Feldman, questioned General Yair Nave. Currently the only Israeli Army general who outranks him is Chief of Staff, General Dan Halutz. When Nave signed the restrictive orders, he was the general in charge of the home front. Now he's in charge of the entire West Bank.

Feldman said that as a result of Nave's testimony, the defense's suspicions were confirmed about the general's specific knowledge about the motivations for the order he was expected to sign. What he knew was severely limited. "We found out two things. One that the Secret Service was behind these orders. Two he didn't actually see all the material which the Israeli Secret Service gave him to base the order on,because some of the material is so secret that he cannot see it. So he actually ordered all these limitations without having a full picture of the security hazards that the government keeps claiming.

"What also was very interesting," Feldman continued, "is that he actually said that implementing the orders and supervising them etc. etc. was delegated to the police and the Secret Service. He said that he had nothing to do with enforcing it. So we are going to claim that according to the law he had no right, no authority to pass this duty from the army to the police and specially not to the Secret Service This, of course, is something that is unheard of in any type of democracy. Democracy does not allow to delegate this kind of power and authority to a secret service which does not stand accountable for anything which they do."

"But isn't this a technicality?"

Shrugging Feldman answered, "We know we are dealing with some technicalities. But sometimes in the law this is the only way really to defeat the government."

"When do you expect this trial to end?"

"The judge said he hopes to have this finished by January."

"And what are your expectations as to the outcome?"

"Besides the technical issues, there are the merits of these limitations. My feeling is that the judge is willing to go part way with our arguments, because he already struck out the charges which didn't really identify the persons Vanunu was in touch with. And he changed the charges to a lesser degree by moving them from one law to a different law."

"And in the meantime the anniversary of his release from prison passed in April, and the restrictions were renewed again."

"Yes. And we had a petition in the Supreme Court that they stop these limitations, but the court didn't accept our argument."

"So in fact the government has been successful in marginalizing him, moving him to the side?"

"Yes. It's true. His only public are the persons who are willing to speak to him, willing to hear what he has to say about nuclear weapons. And they are foreigners. That's the main reason the government doesn't allow him to leave the country or to be in touch with foreign journalists. The public in Israel is so brainwashed on this issue of nuclear weapons that probably a large part of the people in Israel won't even listen to what Vanunu has to say about it."


"Feeling that nuclear weapons is essential to the security of the state."

But even as this trial seems to be winding down, Mordechai said that the government is making new charges. "They want to charge me that Radio Iran broadcast an interview with me. But I didn't give them one. The police asked me about this. And I told the police maybe the Mossad gave some false man to Radio Iran, and the false man made himself out like he is Vanunu. Someone cheated Iran. Maybe it was the Mossad."

"How can the government prove it was you? Iranians aren't allowed into Israel to point the finger at you and say, `Yes. He did it.'"

"If the police still claim that I did it," explained Mordechai, "they will have to bring the proof to the court and my lawyers will find out what happened exactly. More than a month ago, a judge of the Supreme Court give the government one month to bring this evidence to the court. And we are still waiting for them to do it."

Michael Sfard, one of the members of Feldman's legal team, sees a connection between these latest allegations the fact that the government may not be able to put Mordechai behind bars the conclusion of the current trial. "I think that the government will try to at least get a suspended sentence, because they think that Mordechai will be more obedient after a suspended sentence. And, if not, they will be able to put him in prison again."

"What do you think?"

"I think," said Sfard, "that after twenty years of confinement the government would know him better than that."