SYDNEY, Australia — A job title like “Treasurer of the Jewish Agency for Israel” may sound prestigious in New York, but in remote New Zealand it seems to conjure up a shadier image — moneyman, perhaps for a covert organization. Small wonder, then, that Shai Hermesh, whose official Israeli passport carries just that title, recently was detained, searched and interrogated at length by customs authorities when he tried to enter New Zealand.
The humiliating detention of Hermesh, on a routine Pacific region tour on agency business, was just the latest embarrassment in the ongoing scandal emanating from the recent Auckland arrest of two Israelis suspected of trying to illegally obtain a New Zealand passport on behalf of the Mossad. The affair has turned into a juicy political story in New Zealand itself and created a deep rift in its bilateral relations with Israel.
The Israeli government has yet to lodge a formal complaint with the government in Wellington over Hermesh’s hostile welcome, despite his claim that he was interrogated for more than three hours, that his personal belongings were ransacked, and that a customs official not only asked whether he had come to “supervise the Jewish community,” but also described Israel as “a nation of spies and drug dealers.” The latter accusation, it would appear, relies on the arrest of the two suspected Mossad agents as well as on the unpleasant fact that no fewer than 10 Israelis currently are incarcerated in New Zealand for various drug-smuggling offenses.
The Israeli government’s reticence, however, is probably a result of its wish to maintain a low profile in its contacts with New Zealand as long as the Mossad-passports case is pending. Israel has yet to confirm or deny the very fact that the two arrested Israelis were in fact government employees, and it has not yet responded to the New Zealand government’s demand for an official apology and for the return of any other illegally obtained New Zealand passports.
The two arrested men, Eli Kara and Uri Kalman, are currently awaiting trial in Auckland, while a third suspect, Zev Barkan, apparently has fled the country, and a fourth, not necessarily Israeli, remains at large, according to New Zealand police. Kara and Kalman are accused of having forged a request for a New Zealand passport using the identity of an unsuspecting Auckland resident who happens to be a bed-ridden paraplegic. Although the indictment doesn’t say so explicitly, New Zealand officials have stated publicly that the two were working on behalf of the Mossad.
Despite the gravity of the affair, the investigation and arrest of the two suspects sometimes were reminiscent of a Keystone Cops caper. One suspect raised the suspicions of New Zealand authorities when he spoke with a marked Canadian accent to an inquisitive immigration official who phoned him about his application for a first-time passport. And when Kara already was in the interrogation room, he heatedly denied having any previous acquaintance with Kalman, only to have a police officer press a speed-dial button on his cell phone, which promptly rang up Kalman, who was sitting in another room only a few feet away.
In Israel itself, the affair has revived criticism over Mossad “bungling,” in the wake of recent mishaps that have seen two agents sentenced to jail in Cyprus for try-ing to monitor a military installation, another agent arrested in Switzerland for placing wiretaps, and the infamous but botched 1998 assassination attempt in Amman, in which two Israeli agents posing as Canadian tourists were arrested following a failed attempt to poison Hamas leader Khaled Mashal.
Government officials dismiss the criticism. “Given the scope of Mossad operations around the world, our failure rate is really very low,” a senior source told the Forward.
The New Zealand affair, in any case, already has had its ripple effects, with Canadian authorities reportedly investigating the use of Canadian passports by the fleeing Barkan (a matter that could prove doubly damaging, given Canada’s furious response to the use of its passports in the Mashal affair). Australia is conducting its own investigation into the activities of Kara, who resided in Sydney for the past two years as a supposed manager of a tourist agency that organizes tours of New Zealand for visiting Israelis. It is in this capacity, Kara claims, that he has visited New Zealand more than two-dozen times in the past two years.
But it is in New Zealand that the affair has done the most damage. The country’s leftist Labour government, led by Prime Minister Helen Clark, had a decidedly antagonistic attitude toward Israel from the outset. The passports affair has further inflamed public opinion, which holds the inviolability of the island nation’s passports in unusually high regard. New Zealand’s passport is well respected internationally, and the country has more bilateral visa-waiver agreements than any other country in the world.
Israel’s tense relations with New Zealand contrast sharply with its ever warming ties with the liberal government of Prime Minister John Howard in Australia. While Canberra has been moving steadily in Israel’s direction, to the point of risking international isolation by voting with Israel and the United States at the United Nations, Wellington has been drifting away, repeatedly lambasting the Sharon government’s “aggressive” policies toward the Palestinians.
Adding to Wellington’s disdain for Israel is its cool relationship with Washington, D.C. New Zealand has been harshly critical of the war in Iraq, but the two countries have been feuding for close to two decades after New Zealand decided to bar nuclear warships from docking in the country’s harbors, effectively depriving the U.S. Pacific fleet of some traditional refueling bases in the area. Washington recently informed New Zealand that there would be no talk of a Free Trade Agreement — similar to one concluded with Australia — unless and until the nuclear-warship issue is resolved. New Zealand, for its part, has unilaterally declared China to be a “market economy,” much to Washington’s annoyance, and is aggressively pursuing its own free trade agreement there — the first between Beijing and any Western country.
New Zealand’s go-alone status is probably the result, first and foremost, of its geographical isolation and the fact that it never has faced any external threat in its 150-year history. Australia, its closest neighbor, was bombed by Japan in World War II and is geographically close to potentially volatile Indonesia, giving it a dimmer view of the basic good will of humankind. New Zealand’s attitude, by contrast, is described even by locals as “uniquely ideological, if not downright naive,” in the words of one pundit.
The Labour government, which includes several hard-left figures schooled in the anti-Vietnam and anti-apartheid movements, is at odds with the United States — and, by extension, with Israel — over core principles of foreign policy. It supports multilateralism and international organizations, and actively champions human rights, throughout the world. It is commonly described in Jerusalem as a government of yefei nefesh, or bleeding-heart liberals.
The accusatory public statements issued by Clark and other ministers after the two suspected Mossad agents were arrested have mortified Israeli officials. Still, even if the New Zealand government were otherwise inclined, Israel would find it hard to engage in damage control and to end the Mossad affair through discreet diplomacy. One of the worst scars in living memory on the New Zealand public’s consciousness is the 1985 Rainbow Warrior affair, in which French secret agents blew up a Greenpeace ship docking in Auckland. Two of the perpetrators were apprehended, put on trial and sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment, but the Wellington government subsequently succumbed to intense French pressure and released them, over widespread public objections. No New Zealand government is likely to repeat that mistake, especially when elections are on the horizon. Besides, Israel has neither the leverage nor the bargaining chips that might induce New Zealand to change its mind.