December 20, 2009 / 3:49 PM / in 10 years

INTERVIEW-Israeli ex-atom chief says Vanunu not security risk

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM, Dec 20 (Reuters) - Israeli nuclear whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu did a service by alerting foes to the country's military might and poses little risk to national security, a former head of Israel's Atomic Energy Commission said on Sunday.

Vanunu was jailed as a traitor in 1986 after discussing his work at Israel's Dimona reactor with a British newspaper.

Though freed in 2004, he has been confined to Israel on the orders of defence officials who argue he may have more secrets to spill.

Yet Uzi Eilam, a retired army brigadier-general who ran the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission between 1976 and 1986, said anything that Vanunu -- a cause celebre among disarmament campaigners -- might still disclose about Dimona is of little relevance.

"I've always believed he should be let go," said Eilam, speaking to Reuters upon the publication of his memoirs.

"I don't think he has significant things to reveal (about Dimona) now."

Israel is widely assumed to have the Middle East's only atomic arsenal but neither confirms nor denies this under an "ambiguity" policy billed as warding off regional enemies while avoiding the sort of provocations that can spur arms races.

Arab states and Iran -- whose own uranium enrichment programme is now the subject of intense international debate -- complain of a double standard in Western reluctance to press Israel to come clean about its nuclear capabilities.

Eilam said Vanunu's interview with Britain's Sunday Times, which led foreign experts to conclude that Dimona had produced fissile material for as many as 200 atomic warheads, had helped Israel's strategic standing by lifting the veil on its might.

"It served to bolster our deterrence," he said.



SETTING AN EXAMPLE

A Jewish-born convert to Christianity, Vanunu said he went public about his work as a mid-level Dimona technician to save Israel from "another Holocaust".

But he has also questioned the Jewish state's right to exist, raising Israeli hackles.

Asked about the decision to keep Vanunu in Israel, which the Supreme Court has upheld, Eilam suggested that there was a punitive interest in turning down his appeals to leave.

"I don't want to speak to the specific calculations of the defence establishment. But clearly there is an effort here to set an example," he said.

"I believe that this is misbegotten," Eilam added, calling Vanunu's case a rarity in an Israeli nuclear apparatus that is mostly leak-proof.

"There are others who are privy to secrets, and who understand the importance of keeping them -- from a security standpoint and a Zionist standpoint."

(Editing by Michael Roddy)

(For blogs and links on Israeli politics and other Israeli and Palestinian news, go to blogs.reuters.com/axismundi)



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