Bombs Beneath the Sand

TRIPLE CROSS: ISRAEL, THE ATOMIC BOMB & THE MAN WHO SPILLED THE SECRETS, By Louis Toscano. New York: Birch Lane Press. 321 pp., $19.95 ON Dec. 21, 1986, a photo of a man's hand made international headlines.

The hand, pressed against the glass of an automobile window, had this message scrawled on it:

Vanunu M.

was hijacked

in Rome ITL

30.9.86 2100

came to Rome

by BA fly 504

Mordechai Vanunu, an Israeli citizen on his way to be tried for espionage, had written the message on his own hand to tell the world how he had mysteriously arrived back in Israel. The Mossad, Israel's equivalent of the Central Intelligence Agency, had kidnapped him.

His crime? Vanunu had taken 57 photos of Israel's top-secret Dimona nuclear facility, where he had worked. He was about to publish the photos, which would prove what had long been suspected, almost assumed: Israel was a nuclear power with a storehouse of bombs.

Ironically, says Louis Toscano, the author of ``Triple Cross,'' the Mossad could have captured or killed Vanunu before his pictures were published. But a decision had been made at the highest level of the Israeli government that Vanunu had already talked too much. The nuclear cat was out of the bag. A secret inner ``cabinet'' had concluded that Israel should retrieve and punish Vanunu, then issue the standard denials that Israel would never be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East. In the end, it decided, it wouldn't be all bad if Israel's enemies knew they were dealing with a nuclear power.

Was Vanunu, who was convicted in a high-security trial and sentenced to 18 years in prison, a traitor, a miscreant, and an Arab sympathizer, as the Israeli government portrayed him? Or was he a heroic whistle-blower, a man whose carefully thought-out moral principles dictated that he reveal Dimona's diabolical secret to the world?

Toscano, a United Press International reporter in Israel in 1987-88, finds Vanunu more of a sad victim than a scheming spy. At the age of nine, Vanunu had moved with his family from Morocco to Israel, enticed by promises of a better life in the Jewish homeland. Instead, the family found a hardscrabble life in the desert town of Beersheba and discrimination from European Jews, who think Arab, or Shepardic, Jews are little better than the Palestinians.

As an adult, the bright, introspective young Vanunu drifted into work at Dimona along with part-time study at the local university. Naturally curious, he slowly pieced together the facility's true nature as an atomic bomb factory. Amazingly, despite leading campus protests and championing the cause of Arab students, he never lost his sensitive job at Dimona.

After deciding to leave Israel with his clearly illegal photos in hand, Vanunu stumbles into St. John's Anglican church in Sydney, Australia. There he is befriended by the Rev. John McKnight and members of the congregation, tells his story, and, eventually, converts to Christianity. Through a disreputable quasi-journalist who hopes to make a fortune from the photos, Vanunu is put in contact with the London Sunday Times, whose investigative team slowly begins to believe his exotic story and brings him to London.

Here the book leaps from true-life spy tale to an inside look at British journalism. The Times, remembering 1983 when it paid $1.2 million for ``Hitler's diaries'' (which proved to be a hoax), treads carefully as reporters and editors try to assess Vanunu's story. Is he another hoaxster? Or perhaps a Mossad agent planting a false story?

When, on the eve of publication of his story, Vanunu is lured to Rome by a female Mossad agent and returned to Israel, another set of questions arise: Were the Times's efforts to protect Vanunu from the Mossad adequate? Did the paper give him sufficient warning as to the dangers he might face in publishing his photos? Did it do enough to help him after his kidnapping and arrest? Times staffers, says Toscano, are still debating these questions.

Toscano's writing has the straightforward ease of a veteran journalist. The result is a fascinating look inside the Mossad, the Israeli government, and a major world newspaper. Most troubling is the book's view of the Israeli court system. In a country with a permanent war-time mentality, Toscano shows, the legal safeguards expected from a Western democracy are swept aside in the interests of ``national security.''

Sadly, he concludes, Vanunu's sacrifice brought about no international debate over a nuclear-armed Israel. While Vanunu sits in an Israeli cell, the plant at Dimona continues its deadly work. And the Israeli government continues to deny it has atomic bombs bottled beneath the desert.

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