SYDNEY — The left-leaning government of New Zealand has imposed a series of sanctions on Israel in the wake of the bungled Mossad-passports affair, and the diplomatic rupture is likely to be “long lasting” unless Israel “explains, apologizes and reassures” the Wellington government, said the island nation’s foreign minister.
“We are the victims of an illegal action by the Israelis,” the minister, Phil Goff, told the Forward, “and thus any improvement in relations rests solely with the response of the Israeli government.”
Israel, for its part, is unlikely to take any action before the two suspected Israeli agents are released from prison, Israeli officials told the Forward. Israel has expressed regret at New Zealand’s decision and voiced hope that relations can be returned to normal. However, it has declined to acknowledge any involvement of its intelligence agencies.
Goff also flatly rejected any link between his government’s harsh reaction and a July 16 attack on the Jewish section of a local cemetery.
The affair marks a low point in a series of strains in Israel’s relations with once-friendly Western nations — eased, if at all, only by the fact that most Israelis are not certain where New Zealand is.
The two suspects, Eli Cara, 50, and Uriel Kelman, 31, pleaded guilty in Auckland earlier this month to conspiring “as members of a criminal group” to obtain a New Zealand passport illegally, using the identity of a wheelchair-bound cerebral palsy victim.
They were sentenced July 15 to six months’ imprisonment and ordered to donate $50,000 each (about $32,000 U.S.) to a local cerebral palsy association in lieu of a fine. Sources suggest they may be released as early as September.
Two other suspects in the case remain at large.
Although the two men did not admit any ties to the Mossad, Goff said his nation’s intelligence had “irrefutable information” pointing to their link to “an Israeli security agency.”
In angry remarks after the sentencing, New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark announced a series of measures including a freeze on high-level contacts and visits between the two countries, a delay in accrediting a new Israeli ambassador and a refusal to host President Moshe Katsav on a visit reportedly planned for August.
The next day, the Jewish section of a Wellington cemetery was desecrated by vandals who overturned 14 headstones and spray-painted Nazi slogans on others. The incident appears to have ignited a chain reaction in the region, spreading to the western Australian city of Perth, where there was an outbreak of anti-Jewish and anti-immigration incidents apparently involving gangs of neo-Nazis and skinheads.
The desecration brought a sharp reaction from the president of the New Zealand Jewish Council, David Zwartz, who said the government had “overreacted” to the passport affair and that its “Israel bashing” had directly led to the “Jew bashing” at the cemetery.
“We are a small community that usually keeps its head down,” Zwartz said. “The community has been very unhappy at the government’s attitude towards Israel in the past four years, but now things have gotten much worse. I hope the government takes heed of this incident and reins in its attacks on Israel.”
Goff, however, vehemently denied any link between Clark’s comments and the cemetery attack. “Some hooligans may have wanted to use this occasion to carry out this deplorable act,” he said, “but I cannot accept that our actions are directly responsible.”
The sanctions’ bark, meanwhile, appeared to be much worse than their bite. No restrictions were imposed on trade relations between the two countries — Israel exports about $60 million of goods annually to New Zealand and imports about $11 million — nor did Wellington abolish its visa waiver for nondiplomatic Israeli visitors, for whom New Zealand has become a popular venue in recent years.
There is no resident Israeli ambassador in New Zealand, and the position of Israeli ambassador to Australia, which is accredited to Wellington as well, has been vacant for months. President Katsav’s visit had been postponed well before Clark’s statement that New Zealand would refuse to receive him, Israeli officials said. As for Clark’s announcement of reduced contacts with Zwartz, who also serves as honorary Israeli consul general — Zwartz said that these had been minimal anyway.
In Israel, the government came under harsh criticism in the media and from several opposition lawmakers, especially for having failed to defuse the crisis when Cara and Kalman were first arrested in March. “It is possible that if Israel had immediately offered its apologies, the crisis would have been avoided,” the daily Ha’aretz wrote in an editorial.
Whether such an apology would have helped the two convicted Israelis is unclear. New Zealand’s reaction is driven at least partly by domestic political considerations, local observers say. The spy scandal comes as the ruling Labor party has been desperately seeking a diversion from its controversial handling of land disputes with the aboriginal Maoris, which is damaging Labor in the polls.
Even before the spy scandal, Clark’s Labor government had been highly critical of Israel. Still, even a friendlier government would have been hard-pressed to reach a quiet deal in the affair, because of the traumatic echoes of an earlier spy scandal involving New Zealand and France. In 1985, French agents blew up a Greenpeace ship, “Rainbow Warrior,” that had been dogging French nuclear tests in the South Pacific. Two French agents, sentenced to 10 years in prison for their role, were released to France on condition that they be imprisoned, but Paris reneged and freed them. The affair prompted outrage in New Zealand, and most observers believe the government would have faced a new furor if it tried to reach a deal now with Israel.
Under these circumstances, Israeli officials say, an Israeli admission of guilt might have actually worsened the legal situation of Cara and Kelman.
New Zealand’s hostile attitude starkly contrasts with that of its closest neighbor, Australia. Under John Howard’s Liberal Party, Australian security services have been conducting their own separate investigation into Cara’s activities in Sydney, where he lived for three years as a “travel agent.” But Howard’s government, an ally of the Bush administration, has downplayed the investigation and refused to air public charges against Israel. Howard himself infuriated Clark’s government when he urged both Jerusalem and Wellington to “be sensible” and offered to mediate.
Goff, for his part, denies any link between his country’s harsh reaction to the passports affair and its general attitude toward Israel. He said Wellington would have taken the same steps had the offending country been the United States or Great Britain — “although I can’t imagine that they would take such actions.” Describing his country’s policy as “even-handed,” Goff cited his own stint as a kibbutz volunteer in the late 1970s, his “many close personal friends” in Israel and his frequent visits to the area.
A less rosy picture of Wellington’s stance toward Israel was painted by political scientist Dov Bing of New Zealand’s Waikato University, who described the Clark government policy toward Israel as “hard-line.” He pointed to Goff’s visit to Israel last year, in which he met with Yasser Arafat despite Israeli objections. He also cited a recent decision to send a trade delegation to the Middle East, where it visited Syria just two weeks after President Bush imposed sanctions on Damascus, but refrained from visiting Israel.
New Zealand, Bing said, has drifted toward support of the “more radical elements” in the Arab world, but the local press and public have yet to realize this. He predicted that the “more thinking” elements would be critical of the government’s handling of the Mossad affair.
For now, however, the opposite appears to be true: Both the press and the opposition National Party have supported the government’s moves. The New Zealand Herald, the newspaper following the affairs most closely, wrote in an editorial of Clark’s sanctions: “We can all be quietly proud.”