The man who found evidence of WMD

If anyone had acted with such bravery against Saddam, we'd be hailing them a hero

Mark Steel

22 April 2004

In these days of politics dominated by spin and public relations, the Israeli government is usually a breath of fresh air. For example, most people in the public eye, if they were to blow up a blind man in a wheelchair, would be straight on the phone to Max Clifford to soften the damage by setting up an interview on Sky One. But the refreshingly honest strategy of Ariel Sharon was to send out a spokesman to say something like "Bloody cripple was getting on our nerves." Then three weeks later, without a thought for how it might come across in the Sunday papers, they blow up his replacement.

So once again Hamas has to appoint a new leader. Anyone thinking about applying should probably not ask about the pension scheme, as they'll probably be told, "I'm not sure you've quite grasped the nature of the position."

But one man has sent the Israelis scurrying to the world of spin. Yesterday, Mordechai Vanunu came out of an Israeli jail after serving 18 years for informing the world about Israel's secret and illegal nuclear weapons programme. This is a fascinating legal precedent, that it's illegal to tell anyone that someone else is doing something illegal. Presumably now, in Israeli courts, cases can end with a judge saying, "You have been found guilty of armed robbery and will serve eight years in jail. Furthermore I sentence the police and witnesses to 10 years for telling me you did it."

But it's an even more extraordinary case given the recent history of world events. Because we've just invaded a Middle Eastern country for secretly developing weapons of mass destruction, for which there was barely any evidence and that can't be found by countless inspectors. But Vanunu proved that a Middle Eastern country was secretly developing weapons of mass destruction, with documents and photos and everything, and no one seems to give a toss.

Maybe weapons of mass destruction are like fairies, and the snowman who takes the little boy to the North Pole on Christmas Eve - they're only allowed to exist in the imagination. The time to take notice is if an old stranger with a beard passes through town, saying "Whosoever dare hear of my tale? For 'tis said that deep, deep in the desert there lies a great and fearful beast. And on each full moon it do puff out a mighty spore of anthrax, whereupon a wicked King do poke it into a bottle and aim it at Cyprus in five and forty minutes."

But once you collect a document or take a photo, the spell is broken and they disappear. Or perhaps that's the next plan, a new set of inspectors will be sent to Iraq to check the back of every wardrobe.

Whatever the reason, Vanunu is probably wondering whether the wrong country was invaded by mistake. It must be as confusing as if, in 1939, the King had announced Britain would not tolerate aggression against Poland, and "By noon I had received no such undertaking. Therefore I have to inform you we are at war with the Isle of Man."

Now he's out, perhaps he'll reveal that when he divulged his information, he was told, "To be honest, nuclear weapons aren't too dangerous these days. Now, if you've any grainy photos of empty cylinders that may or may not have once contained something powdery, you must let us see them immediately."

The trouble is he won't be allowed to inform us of anything, as he's not allowed to travel abroad, or speak to any foreigners, or approach any ports or airports, or go within 100 yards of any embassy or use a phone that hasn't been bugged. So his whole life will become a game of chess, as he asks himself, "Could I get my bread from that road - no I can't, that puts me in check by the Swedish Embassy." The Israeli secret service will go bankrupt with half its staff employed to run around Vanunu with a tape measure.

But their lack of experience with PR spin does show. One statement claimed Vanunu is "motivated by greed". Does that really stand up? Was he hoping to sell pictures of the cell in which he spent 12 years in solitary confinement to Hello! magazine for a feature called "At home with Mordechai"?

Did he sit down with a notepad, calculating that if he rushed off 18 years in jail he could clean up by doing speeches at left-wing conferences, possibly even getting to meet Vanessa Redgrave? Perhaps he thought "Once I'm out of here I'll be a shoe-in for a guest appearance on Blankety Blank." Maybe at times he wondered whether it was all so easy there must be a catch, like with a pyramid scheme.

If anyone had acted with such bravery against Saddam the world would, quite rightly, be hailing them as a hero. But the British and American governments have said nothing about Vanunu's detention, and nothing about the restrictions applied to his release.

Maybe the whole episode explains how Jesus felt he was misinterpreted by some of his fellow Jews. When he said, "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone," everybody stood and pondered the meaning for a moment. Then Ariel Sharon's party said "Mind you, he didn't say anything about Inter- Continental Ballistic Missiles, did he?"