Israeli prisoner still a non-person in U.S. media
By NORMAN SOLOMON
For Benjamin Netanyahu, October ended on an upbeat note. The Israeli prime minister got a warm reception in Washington -- and the American news media hailed the renewal of the Middle East "peace process."
For Mordechai Vanunu, October ended on a more downbeat note. The Israeli whistleblower finished his twelfth year in captivity -- and the American news media continued to treat him as a non-person.
On Sept. 30, 1986, Israel's government kidnapped Vanunu in Rome and put him on a cargo ship. Back in Israel, at a secret trial, he faced charges of espionage and treason. A military court sentenced him to 18 years in prison.
What was Vanunu's crime? He gave detailed information to journalists at the Sunday Times of London -- about Israel's arsenal of nuclear bombs.
After growing up in a Jewish family that emigrated to Israel from Morocco when he was a boy, Mordechai Vanunu became an employee at the Dimona nuclear plant in 1976. Nearly a decade later -- shortly before his employment ended at the remote nuclear facility -- he took photos inside Dimona, which has always been closed to international inspection.
Using severance pay to travel abroad in 1986, Vanunu contacted the famous Insight investigative unit of Britain's Sunday Times. "During his extensive debriefing by our Insight team," the newspaper reported, "he offered to give the paper his photographs and all his information for nothing provided we did not publish his name, insisting his sole interest was in stopping nuclear proliferation in the Middle East."
The Sunday Times persuaded Vanunu to allow his name to be used. The paper agreed to pay Vanunu for serialization or a book based on his information. But money did not seem to motivate him.
"My impression of the man was of someone who had a genuine desire to tell the world of something that was going on which he felt was genuinely wrong for Israel to do," said Peter Hounam, the main reporter on the story for the Sunday Times. "He felt it was wrong that the Israeli public and parliament were not given any information about what was happening in Dimona."
On Oct. 5, 1986, the Sunday Times broke the story under the front-page headline "REVEALED: THE SECRETS OF ISRAEL'S NUCLEAR ARSENAL." But by then, Vanunu was a prisoner of the Israeli government. After a dozen years, he still is.
Can you imagine what would have happened if another country in the Middle East -- say, Iraq or Iran -- kidnapped one of its citizens from Western Europe to retaliate for spilling the beans about its nuclear weaponry? That person would have become an instant media hero in the United States.
But if you mention Mordechai Vanunu's name to an American, you're likely to get a blank look. On this side of the Atlantic, he's a media phantom.
This year, the Nexis database confirms, U.S. media coverage of Vanunu has remained paltry: just a few scattered newspaper articles and scant dispatches from The Associated Press, plus a fleeting story on CNN and another one on National Public Radio. So far in 1998, The New York Times -- "the newspaper of record" - - hasn't mentioned Vanunu at all.
That's quite a contrast to the situation in Britain, where coverage of Vanunu's case has been extensive and sustained. So far this year, mainstream British outlets have done at least 45 "major stories" about Vanunu, according to Nexis. Sixteen of them appeared in the Sunday Times.
Top politicians and journalists in Washington wag their fingers at India and Pakistan for joining the world's nuclear club without an invitation. But there is no such scolding of Israel, which receives U.S. aid at a rate of $1 billion every few months -- while maintaining a stockpile of about 200 nuclear warheads.
A dramatic photo of Mordechai Vanunu was taken nearly a dozen years ago. Although Israeli authorities had claimed that he returned to his country voluntarily, Vanunu wrote a contrary message on his palm, which he pressed to the window of a police van in Jerusalem.
The prisoner's palm told the story: "Vanunu was hijacked in Rome, Italy, 30/9/86, 21:00 hours..." That's how the world learned that he'd been kidnapped. From then on, when he was transported to court, the van windows were painted black.
Twelve years later, the windows between Mordechai Vanunu and the American people are still very dark.