Israel acknowledged Sunday that it is holding Mordechai Vanunu, the nuclear technician who sold details of Israel's alleged nuclear capabilities to a London paper. The surprise announcement came after weeks of speculation in the international press over Mr. Vanunu's whereabouts. But it left unanswered key questions about Vanunu's mysterious disappearance from London Sept. 30.
In a terse statement issued after a weekly Cabinet session, the government said that ``Mordechai Vanunu is under lawful detention in Israel, in the wake of a court order which was issued following a hearing at which the lawyer he chose was present.'' The statement said no further details would be given because the case was ``sub judice.''
Senior Israeli officials said the statement is a response to press reports alleging that Israel kidnapped Vanunu in London, and that it did so with the knowledge of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. ``The truth is that nothing illegal was done in Britain,'' said one official.
Shortly after the statement was issued, Israeli attorney Amnon Zichroni, interviewed on Israel Radio, said he was representing Vanunu and had seen his client several times, most recently ``a few days ago.''
The Cabinet statement broke the government's month-long silence on the whereabouts of Vanunu. Vanunu, an Israeli who worked for eight years at Israel's secret nuclear facility in the town of Dimona, went into hiding after selling information and pictures to the London Sunday Times that he said proved Israel is manufacturing nuclear weapons. He disappeared three days before the story ran, and was reported missing Oct. 7.
The statement did not say how Vanunu got to Israel. Nor did it say what crime, if any, Vanunu has been charged with. It specifically denied as ``totally without foundation,'' what it called ``rumours to the effect that Vanunu was `kidnapped' on British soil.''
British press reports had alleged that Vanunu was kidnapped from a London apartment by Mossad, Israel's secret service, after the Times printed a detailed article alleging that Israel has had the capacity to make nuclear weapons for more than 20 years, and is now developing a neutron bomb.
After the story ran, then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres said Israel would not be the first nation to introduce nuclear weapons into the region.
The Cabinet statement also denied a report in Sunday's Observer that Mrs. Thatcher had permitted to spirit Vanunu out of Great Britain. ``...There is likewise no basis to the report that Mr. Peres contacted Mrs. Thatcher in order to inform her about something that never took place,'' the statement said.
Government officials have been under mounting pressure to make some comment about Vanunu - from the press and individuals who have taken an interest in the case. John McKnight, the Australian clergyman who said he helped Vanunu convert to Christianity, attracted wide coverage when he visited Israel earlier this month in an unsuccessful effort to find Vanunu.
The Israeli press has focused on Vanunu's background, his alleged commitment to leftist causes, and his sympathy with the Palestinians. Editorials have been scathing about the alleged security lapse that allowed him to work in Dimona, then leave and sell his story.
``It is incomprehensible how someone like Vanunu, who never concealed his extreme political opinions, was permitted to continue to work at the nuclear [facility]'' editorialized the independent daily, Haaretz.
Reports that Vanunu had possibly been abducted and brought to Israel were generally greeted with approval. ``If that did happen, we say: well done. And we don't give a hoot whether he was brought legally or by subterfuge, by sea or by air, alive or dead,'' wrote the editors of Maariv, another large daily.
Military censorship has been particuarly stringent in the Vanunu case. Most newspapers have had to rely heavily on foreign press accounts of the alleged abduction and detention of Vanunu. But as one Israeli official put it Sunday ``Here, the Vanunu case is a curiosity. This is not an issue to be debated.''
For most Israelis, allegations that Israel may be the world's sixth largest nuclear power are secondary to questions about security lapses that allowed Vanunu's selling of alleged state secrets.
In a country obsessed with security concerns, an official said elliptically, ``most Israelis, like me, are glad that we don't have evidence that we don't have nuclear weapons.''