LONDON -- "I will be on a hunger strike for a few days on the nine-year anniversary of the kidnapping," wrote Mordechai Vanunu last month in a heavily censored letter from his 10-by-12-foot cell in Ashkelon jail. But nobody knows if the man who spilled the beans about Israel's nuclear weapons actually went on a hunger strike September 30, because his only communication with the outside world is two family visits a month.
Apart from that Mr. Vanunu is entirely alone, even during the one hour's exercise a day that he is allowed outside his little cell. And he will be entirely alone for another 3,000 days unless some outside power intervenes on his behalf.
The charge that earned Mr. Vanunu 18 years of solitary confinement was treason, but he wasn't a spy. He was a technician with a narrowly scientific education who began working at Israel's secret nuclear-weapons facility at Dimona when he was 22. Eight years later, older and perhaps wiser, he had become a pacifist -- and felt obliged to go public about Israel's nuclear weapons.
He flew to London in 1986, and made a deal with the Sunday Times to publish all he knew. Not many people were surprised to learn that Israel has nuclear weapons, though it was useful to have direct confirmation from someone on the inside. But even friendly governments were flabbergasted to learn that Israel had more than 200 of the things, which puts it in about the same league as Britain, French and China.
A rational Israeli government, if it wanted to keep people guessing about its nuclear weapons, would have denied everything, even denied that Mr. Vanunu had ever worked at Dimona -- and perhaps invented some Arab ancestors for him in order to throw doubt on his motives.
Instead, Mossad (the Israeli secret service) lured Mr. Vanunu from England to Italy on false pretenses, then kidnapped him, drugged him and smuggled him out to Israel on a cargo vessel. Thereupon he was isolated from all contact with the press, tried for treason, and sentenced to one of the harshest punishments any Israeli citizen has ever received.
You can ask for no more convincing proof that Mr. Vanunu was telling the exact truth. He has done the world a considerable service, and it behooves the world to help him. In this case, "the world" means, in practice, the U.S. government.
Why the United States? First, it has leverage on Israel, due to its generous arms supplies and subsidies. Second, it is high time that the U.S. stopped letting Israel get away with it.
In the 1950s and '60s, Israel simply lied to the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations about its nuclear ambitions, telling Washington that the Dimona facility was a textile factory, a pumping station or a desalination plant. (Consistency is an over-rated virtue.) Later, when it had become clear beyond any question that Israel had The Bomb, Washington simply pretended not to notice.
It had to pretend that, because at the same time that successive U.S. administrations were tacitly condoning Israeli nuclear weapons, they were desperately trying to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons elsewhere.
Several generations of U.S. diplomats have therefore been forced to mime extreme stupidity when the subject comes up. As recently as 1991 in Cairo, then Defense Secretary Richard Cheney claimed to have no idea that Israel had a nuclear-weapons capability. "They have certainly never FTC announced it," he said.
It's not just the humiliation. American diplomacy is also forced into paroxysms of hypocrisy by its tacit toleration of Israel's secret nuclear arsenal.
Dismantling the Iraqi nuclear-weapons program; talking the Chinese out of selling nuclear reactors to Iran; penalizing Pakistan for its secret nuclear-weapons program; stopping the North Koreans from pursuing theirs: It all gets a lot harder when your Israeli friends are the biggest transgressors of all, and you never complain about their weapons.
Realistically, Washington is not going to denounce Israeli nuclear weapons at the very same time that it is trying to help Yitzhak Rabin's government sell peace with the Palestinians to the Israeli electorate. But think of it as a 12-step recovery program, and Washington's first step could very well be to demand Mr. Vanunu's freedom.
Then just leave him alone and let him write his book. The flood-gates will open, and all sorts of other Israelis will start talking about their experience in the nuclear-weapons program. A year or two later, when it is all out in the open in Israel, you can finally broach the subject of Israeli nuclear weapons in a formal diplomatic way.
Unfortunately, that is not the direction in which things seem to be moving. Instead the Senate, with White House support, voted last month to lift all the economic curbs and military sanctions that were imposed on Pakistan five years ago by the Bush administration because of its secret nuclear-weapons program.
"To reward them with economic aid, spare parts, new missiles makes a mockery out of our anti-proliferation efforts," warned Sen. John Glenn, but the Clinton administration did not listen. For Pakistan, as for Israel, proliferation pays. And Mr. Vanunu stays in solitary.
Gwynne Dyer syndicates a column on foreign affairs.