Mordechai Vanunu, the missing Israeli nuclear technician, was described Monday in the Israeli press and by a former girlfriend as a pro-Arab activist and candidate member of the Israeli Communist Party who left the country last summer "to start a new life."
Unconfirmed reports have suggested that Vanunu, 32, who sold information on Israel's atomic secrets to the Sunday Times of London, was abducted by Israeli intelligence agents last month and is now being held in a top-security prison here. He has been missing since last Sept. 30, when he was seen leaving a London hotel.
Israeli officials have refused to make any substantive comment about what has appeared in the Sunday Times or about the reports of Vanunu's abduction and imprisonment. Until Monday, the Israeli news media had been limited by the military censor to publishing details of the case that had already been reported by the foreign press.
Change Not Explained
There was no explanation for the change of policy that led to Monday's domestic coverage of Vanunu's private life.
The result was what the Government Press Office called "Vanunumania" in its official translation of Monday's coverage in the Israeli media. The big afternoon tabloid Yediot Aharonot published five articles on the case, along with three photographs of Vanunu and a sketch in the nude, reportedly done by a student in a painting class where the missing technician served as a model.
A former girlfriend, Judy Zimmet, confirmed many of the details reported in the Israeli press. She was interviewed by telephone in Boston, where she is a graduate student. Zimmet, 30, a native of New York who was living here at the time, said she accompanied Vanunu to his ship last Jan. 19, when he left Israel for what he said he thought would be the last time.
Wanted a New Life
"He wanted to start a new life, to lead a quiet life," she said.
But "a lot of questions remain," she said, among them why Vanunu smuggled out of Israel with him undeveloped film containing more than 60 photographs of Israel's top-secret Dimona nuclear reactor complex.
Senior Israeli officials have said privately that the government sees no need to comment on the Vanunu case and that in the absence of official comment, the publicity surrounding the case is bound to die out. In these circumstances, the military censor's decision to permit publication of original material concerning Vanunu's background came as a surprise.
There was speculation that the authorities were keeping their options open on the eve of a possible indictment of Vanunu on a charge of treason. It has been reported that in October he was ordered held for 15 days, a period that will expire today. If so, under Israeli law he will have to be formally charged, or the period will have to be formally extended.
For whatever reason, Israeli policy-makers seem to be satisfied to have Vanunu publicly described as a greedy, confused and rootless traitor who, if found to have sold state secrets, deserves to be punished severely.
The independent newspaper Maariv advocated Monday that if Vanunu is in Israel, "a way be found to place him on partially public trial so that all the other Vanunus will know that far-reaching is the hand of Israel and highly painful the blow of its arm."
Speculation of a Ruse
Meanwhile, officials are also clearly pleased that publicity surrounding the case has served to give credence to reports that Israel has a large stockpile of nuclear weapons available to deter any Arab threat. There has even been speculation that this is all part of a ruse to keep Israel's potential Arab enemies off guard.
On the basis of information and photographs supplied by Vanunu, the Sunday Times reported last month that Israel has been manufacturing atomic warheads for 20 years and that Israel, with about 100 nuclear weapons in a secret stockpile, now ranks as the world's No. 6 nuclear power.
Vanunu reportedly worked at the Dimona complex for more than nine years, and the reports about his outside activities have fueled charges that his continued clearance at such a sensitive site involved a major security lapse.
One of the photographs published Monday by Yediot Aharonot shows Vanunu carrying a placard in support of a pro-Palestinian demonstration at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba, where he lived. The placard carries the message, "Israel-Palestine: Two Countries for Two Nations."
According to Zimmet, Vanunu worked nights at Dimona and was a student at Ben-Gurion University during the day. She said his political views had turned increasingly leftist in sympathy with what he described as discriminatory treatment against the Arabs.
Vanunu became active in student politics at Beersheba, and in an interview published last year by the campus newspaper Barberan (Chatterbox), he was quoted as saying, "We've got to quit bothering the Arabs."
Job Lost Through Cutback
Zimmet quoted him as telling her that if he had been so politically involved at the time, he would never have gotten clearance to work at the Dimona complex. Vanunu lost his job a year ago in a general cutback at the facility, although Zimmet said he told her that "people had been concerned about his political activities."
She said she once heard him give a speech in Arabic about equal rights.
"I know that about one month before he left, he joined the (Israeli Communist) party and became a candidate, not a full-fledged member," she said. She said that many Israeli Arabs belong to the Communist Party here, which is legal, and that his action "stemmed from his identification with their plight."
Zimmet said Vanunu visited his family before leaving the country, but his father was quoted in the Israeli press Monday as saying they had been estranged for years.
"I don't recognize Mordechai as my son," the independent paper Maariv quoted the father, Shlomo Vanunu, as saying. "Thank God I have other children. Even if Motti will spend many years in jail, I will not visit him."
The elder Vanunu, who immigrated from Morocco with his wife and family in 1963, was described Monday as a rabbi and merchant in Beersheba.
According to the Israeli press accounts, Mordechai Vanunu, who was 9 years old when the family arrived here, studied in a religious school and served as a sergeant with the army engineers.
He is said to have rebelled against his father's religious practices and to have stopped wearing the yarmulke--the skullcap worn by Jewish men and boys at prayer--when he was drafted into the army.
Shlomo Vanunu told Yediot Aharonot: "The problems started when he left the army. He left the house and went to live in his own apartment. . . . In Beersheba he was like a king. He had a nice car and lots of money. He was a golden boy. Now he's a criminal. . . . "
The daily paper Hadashot quoted the senior Vanunu as complaining that despite his son's affluence, "we never got a cent out of him."
Vanunu's family has denied having any contact with him since his rumored abduction last month by agents of the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service.
Zimmet said she knows of no "concrete evidence that (anyone) has seen him." But she is convinced, she said, that he is being held here. Even though she understands that security interests may dictate a secret trial, she said: "I want to be sure he will have proper, humane treatment. . . . I want to see that things are done fairly."
She said that she is anxious to talk to the press to help generate "publicity and pressure on Israel (that) I hope will be constructive."