It’s official: diplomatic ties between New Zealand and Israel are back on. In June, after six months of discussions, Israel announced that it was sending its Ambassador Itzhak Gerberg back to New Zealand and restoring full diplomatic relations.
The latest thorny patch in the relationship between the two countries, which has been somewhat fractious over recent decades, came about due to New Zealand’s co-sponsorship of United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 2334. One-sided, stridently “anti-settlement”, and seeming to contradict UNSC Resolution 242, which has always been regarded as the key guide to Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, the resolution was pushed through the Security Council in the last days of New Zealand’s membership.
While New Zealand’s then Foreign Minister Murray McCully had repeatedly stated his wish to get Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table, the co-sponsorship move took most by surprise. It felt like an outright betrayal to much of New Zealand’s Jewish community and outraged many other New Zealanders.
Israel’s reaction was immediate. It recalled Ambassador Gerberg back to Israel and its diplomatic relationship with New Zealand was put on hold. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu described New Zealand’s actions as a “declaration of war”.
This left the country’s Jewish community fearing that the relationship was irreparably damaged and the Israeli Embassy in New Zealand could be closed down. Having experienced a period without an Embassy early in the 2000s, it was a prospect that gravely concerned the community.
But behind the scenes, negotiations were underway. The end result was that New Zealand’s Prime Minister Bill English sent a letter to Netanyahu expressing regret over the damage to relations caused by the co-sponsorship of the resolution.
Predictably, New Zealand’s opposition Labour and Green Parties were critical of the development, claiming the government was betraying principle for trade. But English told media that the letter did not apologise for co-sponsoring the resolution and that New Zealand stood by its position.
“What we do express regret about was the fact that it disrupted our relationship with Israel,” he said. “Whether we agree with a country or don’t disagree with them, we certainly prefer to have diplomatic connection and it’s good that Israel has seen fit to restore their post in New Zealand.”
News that the two countries have patched up their relationship was welcomed by representatives of the Jewish community.
Zionist Federation President Rob Berg said the co-sponsorship of UN Resolution 2334 was a big stain on New Zealand’s reputation as a fair and honest broker. “With a new Foreign Minister in position, it is pleasing to see diplomatic relations moving forward.”
The Zionist Federation is looking forward to closer ties between New Zealand and Israel, Berg said. “We are both small countries who are more successful in many areas than their size would suggest they should be. The two countries have a lot to offer each other – as is seen in the recent film industry agreement and the visits of several New Zealand tech companies to Israel.
“The hope is that with the Israeli Ambassador returning to Wellington these and other areas of cooperation can be enhanced and developed.”
Much of the increased optimism about the future revolves around new Foreign Minister Gerry Brownlee who took over from McCully earlier this year.
B’nai B’rith New Zealand Vice President Dr. Jim Salinger said Jerusalem believed that McCully was the driving force behind the UN resolution. “It was widely expected that relations with Wellington would improve once he left office. And they did immediately after Brownlee took over early in May.”
In fact, one of Brownlee’s first moves as Foreign Minister was to contact Netanyahu in a bid to restore the diplomatic relationship.
At the time, Brownlee said New Zealand shouldn’t intervene in how either Israel or the Palestinians should behave, beyond condemning terrorism. He also said that his view was that in the end the solution to conflict in the Middle East would be achieved by the people who live there.
For this, Brownlee was roundly criticised by opposition parties and in the media. English weighed in and said the new Foreign Minister’s comments came about because he was still getting to know the language being used.
But Brownlee apparently continued in his efforts to get the New Zealand-Israel diplomatic relationship back on track. He has stated that it is important because Israel is in a part of the world challenged by rogue states and terrorists. This all stands in stark contrast to his predecessor, who courted controversy last year when he repeatedly refused to use the word “terrorism” to refer to Palestinian violence against Israeli civilians.
Salinger said Brownlee is to be congratulated on restoring relations with one of the few democratic secular nations in the Middle East, especially as the two countries have much to profit from the normally warm bilateral relations.