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Published: Monday, 4/26/2004

Vanunu's new mission

Israel has good reason to be angry at Mordechai Vanunu, the fired nuclear plant technician, who talked about the nation's nuclear weapon capacity to a London newspaper in the mid-1980s. Israeli agents tracked him down, convicted him, and imprisoned him for 18 years .

Now, sentence served, Mr. Vanunu, amid death threats, continues to raise Israeli hackles by questioning not only Israel's need for nuclear weapons in a nuclear-free Middle East, but also the need for Israel itself to exist. The former is an especially pertinent question and one that has made Vanunu fans of peace groups.

Officially, Mr. Vanunu's whistle-blowing can only be seen by the Israelis as traitorous. Not only is Mr. Vanunu unrepentant and proud of what he did, the one-time Orthodox Jew is a religious apostate. He became a Christian in the 1980s.

In international relations, a disloyal whistleblower may be honored abroad as he is pilloried at home. He may also earn broader condemnation, as did the late nuclear physicist Klaus Fuchs, who helped build the U.S. atomic bomb and told the Soviet Union what he knew.

However Mr. Vanunu is seen, his queries about Israel's need for nuclear weapons, at a time the nuclear powers are trying to stop their proliferation, deserves a look.

The first thing is to ask why Israel wanted them? The answer is that, after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it viewed them as the ultimate deterrent against the hostile Arab world which surrounded it.

When Israel couldn't find a spot under the U.S. nuclear umbrella during the 1950s and early 1960s, the tiny nation made common cause with France, which had an eye to its African colonies, to develop expertise and the plant it needed. Norway later supplied heavy water and South Africa the uranium, though a wary eye was cast at a Pennsylvania firm that had "lost" 200 pounds of enriched uranium.

Israel wasn't the first to consider using unconventional weapons in the Middle East. Nor was Saddam. The British used chemical artillery shells against the Turks in 1917 and Iraqi Shiites in 1920, Warner D. Farr wrote in 1999 for the USAF Counterproliferation Center. In the 1920s and 1930s, they also used aerial chemicals on Iraqi targets, he said.

No surprise, Israel's nuclear capacity whetted the interest first of Egypt, then Iraq, and more lately Iran in getting nukes of their own.

So the nations that make the decisions that run the world should explore with Israel the creation of a well-inspected nuclear-free zone throughout the Middle East. Perhaps today's hostilities suggest now isn't the best time. But why not a tentative agenda and a timetable?

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