AIR New Zealand: Missing in action

Winston Peters: Pro-Israel reputation apparently not backed by action so far (AFP PHOTO / Marty MELVILLE)

Under fire from armchair critics as ever, Israel has also been in recent months under near constant physical attack from Hamas-ruled Gaza. The first, headline grabbing examples of this were the supposedly “peaceful”, but actually violent, weekly protests on the Gaza border which began on March 30, and continue until the present day.

Since then, Israeli towns near the Gaza border have been faced with several large-scale barrages of rockets and mortars – while incendiary kites and balloons have been sent into Israel on a daily basis and in large numbers. These violent tactics have resulted in numerous injuries, considerable destruction of property and crops and massive environmental damage.

While global responses to the Gaza border “protests” were mixed, there has been condemnation of the rocket and missile attacks from the US, Canada, European countries and even the UN.

But what has been the response of the New Zealand Government? 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she was concerned by the “devastating one-sided loss of life” when Israeli troops responded to those “peaceful protests” that attempted to breach the fence along the internationally-recognised border. Shortly afterwards, at a special session of the UN Human Rights Council, New Zealand’s permanent representative to the UN, Jillian Dempster, reiterated this sentiment, censuring Israel and failing to mention the role of Hamas.

Wellington has yet to condemn Hamas’ rocket attacks or other actions. This has the New Zealand Jewish community and supporters of Israel worried. 

Zionist Federation of New Zealand President Rob Berg has been outspoken on the issue. In a recent opinion piece for the website STUFF, Berg talked about a noticeable increase in hostility by the New Zealand Government against Israel.

Berg called out Ardern for her comments on the Gaza “protests” and criticised Foreign Minister Winston Peters for being noticeably quiet on the subject of Israel. He also condemned Green Party MPs Marama Davidson and Golriz Ghahraman for standing alongside those “advocating the destruction of the world’s only Jewish state and resurfacing modern-day blood libels accusing Israel of genocide.”

The Israel Institute of NZ co-director Ashley Church says his organisation’s position is that there has been an erosion of the formerly strong relationship between Israel and New Zealand.

“There has been a decline in New Zealand’s UN voting record in relation to Israel since about 2004-2005. Prior to then, New Zealand was very consistent and balanced in its voting. But in the years since, our voting record has got worse and worse. And our erstwhile strong friendship is on the way to… I would hesitate to say becoming enemies, but it’s definitely going in the wrong direction.”

It is widely accepted that the lowest point in New Zealand’s relations with Israel in recent years followed Wellington’s co-sponsorship of the completely one-sided UN Security Council Resolution 2334 in 2016. This came under the previous National-led government and was instigated by then-Foreign Minister Murray McCully. 

Church says that National Party MPs have subsequently said the move was not taken to caucus and if it had been it wouldn’t have happened. “It was a case of National stepping away from its norm. And their new leader, Simon Bridges, says they made a mistake on Resolution 2334.”

But under the current Labour Government, the situation is likely to get worse, he says. “Anti-Israel rhetoric is part of their political message.”

Church adds that, unfortunately, it’s no longer clear where Peters stands on Israel. “In the past, he has been perceived as being friendly to Israel. But now that he is in power, he hasn’t done anything to indicate that.”

But long-time Israel advocate John McCormick is more positive about Peters. He believes he has been undercut by the Prime Minister, as well as “pro-Arab” Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials, on the issue and that MPs in Peters’ party, NZ First, are generally supporters of Israel.

“NZ First has only got nine votes in total. And Labour dominates the Cabinet. The problem for Israel’s friends is that we don’t know how many friends we have in the Labour Party. We were complacent under National and we are paying a price now. So we need to focus on building relationships with Labour.”

Alongside the declining trend in the New Zealand-Israel political relationship, the lack of interaction from the Ardern Government on other matters important to the Jewish community has perhaps been even more disconcerting.

Australasian Union of Jewish Students NZ President Gary Hofman sums up an apparently widespread feeling in the New Zealand Jewish community: “It’s quite disappointing from our perspective that there has been no movement regarding Israel – especially considering Peters was one of the few outspoken critics of New Zealand’s participation in UN action against Israel. 

“But the lack of interaction with the community is really disappointing too. It’s when small things, like living up to the promise to wish the community a happy Hanukkah, don’t happen, that it seems noticeable to us that we’re perhaps not important to our government.”