NZ-Israel ties restored, but English unmoved on UN resolution

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has restored diplomatic ties with New Zealand, after reportedly likening the country's decision to sponsor a UN resolution as "a declaration of war". Photo: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO via Getty Images.

Israel has restored full diplomatic relations with New Zealand, following the months-long fallout from a UN Security Council resolution. However, opposition parties are accusing the Government of abandoning its principles, as Sam Sachdeva reports.

After the “declaration of war”, peace has broken out.

New Zealand’s decision to co-sponsor UN Security Council Resolution 2334, condemning Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory as “a flagrant violation under international law”, was praised by then-Foreign Minister Murray McCully as “sending a clear message” to both Israel and Palestine.

However, the move led to Israel withdrawing its ambassador to Wellington in protest, and reports that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had used the battlefield metaphor in a conversation with McCully.

Now, nearly six months on, Israel has announced that its ambassador will return to the capital.

A statement from Netanyahu’s office said the restoration of ties followed several months of “discreet high-level bilateral discussions”, including a phone call between him and English.

“Following the discussions, PM English dispatched a letter to PM Netanyahu, in which he stated: ‘First and most importantly, as I said in our conversation, I regret the damage done to relations between New Zealand and Israel as a result of New Zealand's co-sponsorship of UNSC resolution 2334. We welcome the return of Israel's ambassador to Wellington’.”

The decision to co-sponsor the resolution did not go before Cabinet, due in part to the vote taking place on Christmas Eve, with McCully also saying its content was in line with New Zealand’s “longstanding position”.

However, the move is believed to have sparked disquiet among some Cabinet members and National MPs, who were lobbied hard by the Jewish community following the resolution.

Change of direction

McCully’s successor Gerry Brownlee signalled a change of direction after taking over, writing to Netanyahu on his first day in the role in a bid to restore relations.

Brownlee suggestion that the resolution was “premature” led to a public slapdown from English, who said his minister “was just trying to find the right language” and would not describe it as premature again.

NZ Jewish Council spokeswoman Juliet Moses said the Jewish community was happy to move forward, after the UN resolution “came out of left field”.

“There has been a lot of talk about the fact it was a longstanding policy but that’s not correct, and it also went well beyond just condemning settlements: one of the most problematic aspects of the resolution from the Jewish community’s perspective was that it denied any connection to our holiest site in east Jerusalem...so that was distressing.”

Moses said members of the Jewish community “and beyond”, including those in the Christian community, had been vocal in expressing their concerns about the deal.

“I know from my sources that the Government is in no doubt about the fact there is a lot of strong feeling behind this from not a small proportion of the population.”

She believed Brownlee’s appointment as Foreign Affairs Minister may have helped to restore ties, saying: “I don’t think while McCully remained as foreign minister, there was going to be any change, put it that way, or any rectification of the issues.”

English stands by resolution

Speaking to media in the Cook Islands, English said New Zealand stood by the contents of the resolution and had not apologised to Israel about the decision to co-sponsor it.

“The resolution expressed longstanding New Zealand and international policy and we stand by those positions - we did express regret about the fact that it’s disrupted our relationship with Israel.

“It’s a relationship we value...whether we agree with a country or don’t agree with them we certainly prefer to have diplomatic connection.”

English said he “didn’t get into a policy discussion” with Netanyahu about Israel’s settlements, but expressed concerns about the state of the relationship.

“We simply indicated that we felt that it would be better if we had the representation restored, that we understood the concern they had about New Zealand's role in the resolution, and as we’ve talked it through they've seen fit to restore their representation."

Earlier in the day, Brownlee appeared more equivocal about New Zealand’s original call, turning down opportunities to say whether or not the Government regretted the decision during an interview with RNZ.

Labour leader Andrew Little said New Zealand needed to stand firm on its principles, given the resolution was “the crowning achievement” of the country’s time on the UN Security Council.

“What’s changed since December when we were proud to have succeeded on the world stage on such an important issue? Bill English needs to be upfront with New Zealand.”

Green Party global affairs spokesman Kennedy Graham said English’s decision to express regret showed “a lack of moral strength”, given the impact of illegal settlements on the peace process.

“International pressure is needed to stop Israel from continuing to build settlements on land belonging to the Palestinian people.”

Yet both New Zealand and Israel appear eager to move on and focus on closer economic and security ties.

A Kiwi business delegation is heading to Tel Aviv later this month to look at cyber-security issues, while the 100th anniversary of Battle of Beersheba, involving Anzac troops, will be marked in the country during October.