By Lloyd Burr
New Zealand has had an awkward relationship with Israel in recent years, but until today diplomacy between the two countries was starting to become more cordial.
A suspicious series of events on the day of February’s earthquake in Christchurch surfaced this morning, with the Southland Times alleging an Israeli who was killed in the quake was part of a team of spies.
New Zealand’s diplomatic relationship with Israel has fluctuated over the last decade and today’s allegations add another layer.
In 2002, the Israeli Government pulled its embassy out of New Zealand as part of what they called “global cost-cutting measures” and their Australian Ambassador, based in Canberra, became New Zealand’s non-resident ambassador.
Then in 2004, two Israeli intelligence (Mossad) agents, Eli Cara, 50, and Uriel Kelman, 31, were caught and jailed for trying to illegally obtain New Zealand passports.
A third suspected Mossad agent, former Israeli Europe-based diplomat Zev William Barkan, 37, stole the identity of a tetraplegic Aucklander to fraudulently obtain his passport.
The police also sought another person who they thought were linked to passport fraud.
Helen Clark, who was Prime Minister at the time, said she had no doubt they were Israeli Government operatives and suspended high-level diplomatic relations between the two nations.
Tensions remained high until Israel apologised to the New Zealand Government a year later in 2005.
Ms Clark’s response was described by former United States Ambassador Charles Swindells as the “strongest diplomatic retaliation in the 20 years" since the Rainbow Warrior bombing.
Four years later, Jewish news service Jewish Telegraph Agency reported bilateral relations had since thawed, "helped in part by the defeat of Helen Clark and her largely hostile Labour Party at the 2008 polls".
They reported that “the new Prime Minister, John Key, was the son of a Jewish refugee from Austria who had family living in Israel”.
In 2010, Israel’s Government re-opened their embassy in New Zealand after a hiatus of over seven years.
But tensions rose again last year when the Israeli Government took custody of New Zealander Nicola Enchmarch during their raids of a flotilla destined for Palestine.
Foreign Minister Murray McCully said he told Israel at the time “there would be serious international scrutiny of the incident and the causes of it and that they would have serious questions to answer”.
He was criticised by the Green Party as “pussyfooting around [and should] condemn the murderous Israeli assault” and by Labour for not having a strong enough stance.