16 July 2004
New Zealand suspended high-level diplomatic relations with Israel yesterday after two suspected Mossad agents were jailed for six months for passport fraud.
Uriel Zoshe Kelman and Eli Cara were sentenced at Auckland High Court for trying to obtain a passport in the name of a wheelchair-bound man with cerebral palsy. Minutes later, New Zealand's Prime Minister, Helen Clark, launched a blistering attack on Israel, saying its actions had "seriously strained" relations between the two countries.
A furious Ms Clark said her government regarded "the act carried out by the Israeli intelligence agents as not only utterly unacceptable but also a breach of New Zealand sovereignty and international law".
The affair is being cited as the biggest diplomatic row to hit New Zealand since the Rainbow Warrior debacle of 1985, when the country severed relations with France after French secret agents sunk the Greenpeace flagship in Auckland Harbour.
Kelman, 30, and Cara, 50, were arrested in March after a passport officer became suspicious of a telephone call. He noted that the caller had an American or Canadian accent and called the disabled man's father. The pair had obtained the man's birth certificate and were using it in their attempt to secure a passport. One claimed to be a travel agent from Sydney, although there was no evidence that he operated a business in Australia.
The men's motives were not clear, but a New Zealand passport is regarded as anodyne and guarantees visa-free access to many countries.
Two other Israelis believed to be involved in the attempted fraud left the country before it was uncovered, police said. One was named as Zev William Barkan, 36; the identity of the other man was not known. The four had travelled in and out of New Zealand on numerous occasions in the past four years.
Kelman and Cara denied being members of Mossad, but Ms Clark made clear that she had no doubts about their identities. "New Zealand condemns without reservations these actions by agencies of the Israeli government," she said.
She announced diplomatic sanctions including the suspension of high-level visits to Israel by New Zealand government officials and a veto on a request by the Israeli President, Moshe Katsav, to visit the country next month.
The Wellington government also cancelled talks planned between the two foreign ministries later this year and said any Israelis visiting New Zealand on government business would have to apply for a visa. Approval of the appointment of a new Israeli ambassador to New Zealand has been put on hold.
The two men both admitted trying to obtain a New Zealand passport illegally, which carries a maximum penalty of five years. They also admitted working with organised crime gangs to obtain a false passport.
The relatively light sentence was handed down after they changed their plea to guilty at a court hearing two weeks ago. As well as being jailed they were ordered to give $50,000 (£17,500) to the Cerebral Palsy Society of New Zealand.
Silvan Shalom, Israel's Foreign Minister, said Israel would work to restore diplomatic relations with New Zealand, adding: "Israel has a long tradition of excellent relations with New Zealand, and we will do everything necessary - together with the New Zealand government - to restore relations."
* The Israeli army said yesterday that it was treating as a matter of "high importance" figures showing the alarming incidence of suicide by serving soldiers. A report in the Maariv newspaper said 43 soldiers committed suicide last year, compared with 30 killed in combat, a 30 per cent rise on 2002.