November 17, 1986 12:00 PM

When Mordechai Vanunu left Israel early this year, he carried a small canvas bag and a large grudge. Vanunu, 32, had recently been fired from his job as a technician at Dimona, the ultra-sensitive nuclear research site in the Negev desert. Inside the bag was a bombshell: two rolls of color film and notes intended to expose a secret Israeli nuclear stockpile.

For almost a year, the film lay undeveloped as Vanunu restlessly wandered the earth, searching for the proper place to unburden himself of his volatile secret. Last month it exploded on the front page of the respected London Sunday Times, to which he had sold it for $100,000. Vanunu’s evidence seemed to prove what the world had long suspected: Dimona was in reality a secret nuclear arsenal. But its capacity startled even the experts. According to Vanunu’s documentation, in the past 20 years Israel had produced at least 100, and maybe as many as 200, nuclear weapons. His film provided a kind of blueprint of the manufacturing system at Dimona, where 2,700 people are employed. He also gave the Sunday Times enough information to piece together the operation at one of Dimona’s 10 buildings, Machon 2.

If revenge or greed were his motives, Vanunu apparently was never able to enjoy either. Even as his story broke, setting off a geopolitical chain reaction among Israel’s embarrassed allies and worried foes, Vanunu checked out of his London hotel and mysteriously vanished without picking up his fee from the Sunday Times. According to Scotland Yard, Vanunu did not leave England through normal channels, at least not using his own passport.

There were some hints from Israeli sources that he had been lured aboard a yacht by a slinky blond woman and somehow spirited back to Israel by agents of the Mossad, Israel’s CIA. There were rumors that he had been drugged, stashed inside a box and flown back to Israel as diplomatic baggage. There was even speculation that he was an Israeli plant intended to frighten the Syrians.

All the spy-novel conjecture hinges on this: Who was Mordechai Vanunu? Was he a disgruntled employee, a crazy, an agent, a dupe? From his history—pieced together from sources at the Sunday Times, as well as from his friends, acquaintances and relatives—he was no one remarkable. An immigrant in a land of immigrants, Vanunu, one of eight children, was born in Marrakech to Orthodox Jewish parents who were shop owners. They left Morocco for the same reason Jews have left homelands throughout history—to flee anti-Semitism. They settled in Israel in 1963.

Mordechai Vanunu led what appeared to be an unexceptionable life. He served honorably for three years in Israel’s army, rising to first sergeant in a unit on the Golan Heights. If he had a shortcoming, it was his lack of academic inclination. In his first year at college in Tel Aviv, he failed two exams in physics, dropped out and returned home.

In the summer of 1976 Mordechai saw an advertisement for trainee technicians at Dimona. He was accepted and sent back to school for crash courses in physics, chemistry, math and English. In February 1977 he was bused back to Dimona, where his first duty was to sign a pledge never to reveal the secrets of Dimona. Vanunu was assigned to Machon 2, which he described as a secret production blockhouse with false walls and doors and six underground production levels. He worked as a technician on the night shift.

Vanunu continued his education while working at Dimona. He earned his undergraduate degree in geography and philosophy and was working on a master’s at Ben Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba when he began to display a smoldering sympathy for the Palestinian cause. “He was convinced that the Arabs were treated badly. One would see him on the campus only with Arab friends,” noted his philosophy teacher Chaim Morantz. “He was a courageous man, and idealistic. His devotion to the Arab cause must have made him do what he did.”

Avner Maimon, Who served on the student council with Vanunu, describes him as “definitely a weirdo,” and volunteers a still harsher judgment: “He did it for the money,” claims Maimon, who says that Vanunu was known on campus as an avid player of the stock market.

Vanunu’s family has little to offer in his defense. “He drifted away, and we had very little contact since he went to work at Dimona,” says his father, Solomon, 75, who runs a stall selling religious objects in a small market in Beersheba. When he did show up once, it was in a fancy car. Vanunu, angered by his family’s curiosity, refused to answer questions about his work or his income.

By 1985, Vanunu reportedly had joined the Israeli Communist Party. Conveniently for the Israeli authorities, November 1985 budget cutbacks called for a reduction of staff at Dimona. One hundred eighty people were laid off, Vanunu among them. But before he left, he smuggled his camera, concealed among the books he always carried in his rucksack, into Machon 2 and took 60 color photographs.

His closest friends never suspected what Vanunu had done, not even the American girl he had been dating for three months. “He was a sensitive, gentle, quiet, serious person,” recalls Judy Zimmet, who had gone to Israel to work as a nurse.

Last January, Vanunu left Israel with his secret cache. Drawing on his savings, he took off on a worldwide odyssey, going first to Athens, then Bangkok and finally to Sydney, Australia. There, one night early in May, he wandered into a coffeehouse at St. John’s Anglican Church and struck up a conversation on philosophy with the Rev. John McKnight. It wasn’t long before Vanunu was a regular at St. John’s. After two months he converted to Christianity and talked about settling in Australia.

It was at St. John’s that Vanunu met Oscar Guerrero, a sometime Colombian journalist who was at work painting the church fence. Vanunu confided his secrets about Dimona to the Colombian. Guerrero, who spoke of a great windfall of money, eventually made contact with the investigative team of the Sunday Times, who, though skeptical, sent a reporter to Sydney to meet Vanunu. Early in September, having agreed to go to London, Vanunu wrote to his brother Meir in Boston that he was going to tell everything. The family would be hurt, he wrote, but he had to do it for “political reasons.”

For a month this fall, prominent nuclear physicists examined the photographs and cross-examined Vanunu. They found his evidence irrefutable.

Meanwhile Vanunu had met a blond woman named Cindy, who said she was an American hairdresser trainee touring in London. The Sunday Times reporters were alarmed. “I said twice to him, ‘Are you sure this American girl isn’t an agent?’ ” says Peter Hounam, senior member of the investigative team. “He pooh-poohed the idea.” Four days before the Times’s Oct. 5 publication of his revelations, Vanunu was rattled by the premature disclosure of his story in another London newspaper. He told the Times reporters that he was taking a short vacation. The Times never heard from Vanunu again.

Israeli newspapers speculate that he is being secretly held someplace in Haifa, presumably by the Mossad. He may yet be put on trial, but a trial could pose a problem for Israel’s government: If Vanunu is found guilty of revealing nuclear secrets, the verdict will confirm his revelations.

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