Hanging the bell on Israel’s neck

New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark: “The ball is in Israel’s court as to where it wants to move from here. Three months ago we asked for an apology and an explanation. That has not been forthcoming.” Photo: New Zealand Government.

Israel never fails to surprise the world with its open contempt for international law and the norms of international relations. After rejecting the historic International Court of Justice verdict earlier this month, Israel is embroiled in a serious dispute with New Zealand, sparked by two Israeli agents’ attempt to obtain New Zealand passports through fraud and deception.

A little history makes it clear just why New Zealand has reacted with unprecedented vigour to Israel’s crimes.

In October 1997, two Israeli Mossad agents were arrested in Amman following a botched attempt to murder Hamas political leader Khaled Mishal using a chemical weapon. Mishal’s bodyguards managed to thwart and chase the Israeli assassins, who were then arrested by Jordanian security forces.

This act of international gangsterism created a serious problem between Israel and Jordan which had, only three years previously, signed a peace treaty committing themselves, among other things, not to use violence on each other’s territory. But it also precipitated a major diplomatic crisis with Canada.

Canadian authorities were furious when they learned that the Mossad killers were carrying false Canadian passports. Since Canada is a peace-loving and law-abiding nation, Canadians are warmly welcomed anywhere in the Arab world, and Israel sought to use this respectable cover to carry out murder. The damage this Israeli action could have caused to Canada’s reputation, to the well-being of its citizens travelling around the world and to Canadian interests in general was of no concern to Israel. As part of the humiliating fallout of its crime, however, Israel promised Canada to stop forging or stealing its passports.

But Canada’s firm response did not induce Israel to change its ways, but merely to change the victims of its misdeeds. Switzerland and Cyprus are two countries that have in recent years foiled Mossad operations on their territory. This catalogue of violations against nations with which Israel is supposedly on good terms caused Ha’aretz to comment in the wake of the row with New Zealand that Israel will increasingly be “labelled a treacherous country that patronises friendly and far removed countries”.

In the New Zealand case, two Israelis were convicted and jailed for attempting to obtain New Zealand passports by fraud. It is more than likely that Israel intended — as it did with the Canadian passports — to use them in the commission of an act of international terrorism. New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark insists that the two men are Mossad spies. Last week, New Zealand imposed severe diplomatic sanctions on Israel, including cancelling a visit by Israeli President Moshe Katzav, planned for August, and suspending contacts between foreign ministry officials. Clark underlined the strength of her feelings by saying that “the New Zealand government views 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 significance of this dispute goes far beyond bilateral relations between Israel and New Zealand, which may worsen if Israel maintains its defiance or improve if it does as New Zealand has asked and apologise. More important than all this is the firmness with which the government of New Zealand has handled the matter. It has taken tough action against Israel and shown that the sky does not fall down.

Even if in any other context New Zealand’s actions would be considered fairly mild, against Israel such steps require great courage, because actions against Israel are often faced by more wrath from the United States than from Israel itself.

Predictably, some of Israel’s apologists laid false and vicious charges that Clark’s actions were motivated by anti-Israel sentiment. The day after the sanctions were announced, some Jewish gravestones in New Zealand were allegedly vandalised. The country has a small but well-established Jewish community and no history of racist attacks against Jews. The president of the New Zealand Jewish Council seized on the alleged vandalism, saying: “I think there is a direct connection between the very strong expressions against Israel and people here feeling they can take it out on Jews; it seems to me it is Israel bashing one day, Jew bashing the next.” But this familiar tactic of trying to shield Israel from all criticism by invoking anti-Semitism was totally rejected by Clark who maintained the focus on the damage that would be done to New Zealand’s interests if Israel were allowed to penetrate and abuse its passport system with impunity.

Israeli indifference towards its relations with other countries, friends and foes alike, has been the result of years of being treated as an exception to all the rules by an intimidated and hypocritical world. Arab countries, like Libya and Iraq, have experienced strictly enforced and devastating UN sanctions for daring to breach Security Council resolutions, and now Sudan is under threat. And yet, although most countries well recognise Israel’s lawlessness, none has ever been willing to take effective action.

So while Israel whines and cries that it is the eternal “victim” of a biased world, it, in fact, commits massive crimes against millions of Palestinians every day, and occupies and colonises the land of its neighbours, facing, in exchange, nothing but paper condemnations.

It is time that such flagrant excesses are checked, and if New Zealand had the courage to call Israel’s bluff, it is up to the others at the United Nations, the EU and the countries of the region to follow the example set by its government. In Aesop’s fable, the mice being terrorised by the house cat meet and decide that the solution to their problem is to hang a bell around the cat’s neck so they can hear whenever it approaches and seek safety. Their jubilation at this good idea is dampened when a wise old mouse says: “That is a very brilliant idea. Now, who will hang the bell around the cat’s neck?”

New Zealand is the unlikely “mouse” that had the courage to step forward, defending not only its own rights but standing up for international law as well.

Ambassador Hasan Abu Nimah is Director of the Royal Institute for Interfaith Studies in Amman, and Jordan’s former permanent representative to the United Nations.