Is New Zealand at war with Israel now?

3:32 pm on 7 January 2017
Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has declared his country would not abide by a new UN resolution.

Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Photo: AFP

Analysis - The New Zealand-sponsored resolution to ban Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories had the makings of an episode of The Real Housewives of the UN.

It was always the elephant in the room and for the first time since 1979 it was finally being addressed.

This time though, Israel's best friend and staunch ally the United States stood by and did nothing. It actually orchestrated the whole thing, according to a furious Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu.

It was a "shameful ambush" on the country's sovereignty, and a 'kick in the teeth' by the international community, and Israel wasn't going to take it lightly, he said. Suspense. Check. Drama. Check.

After Egypt was pressured into delaying the resolution by Netanyahu and US president-elect Donald Trump, it was suddenly picked up by four other countries - Malaysia, Venezuela, Senegal and New Zealand. Hours before the vote Netanyahu called New Zealand's foreign minister Murray McCully and warned him that it would be a "declaration of war" if he proceeded. No words minced.

National MP Murray McCully

Two years ago Murray McCully promised New Zealand would take its chance to lead and focus on getting the derailed Middle East Peace Process back on track. Photo: RNZ / Mei Heron

But for McCully this was a moment of truth. Two years ago he had addressed the Security Council when New Zealand first gained its non-permanent seat, and delivered a searing indictment of a body that focused on peacekeeping "at the cost of conflict resolution". He promised his Pacific nation would take its chance to lead and focus on getting the derailed Middle East Peace Process back on track. When Netanyahu's warning reached his ear there was just under a month left before he had to give up the seat at the table. It was now or never.

The resolution passed 14-0 with the US abstaining, and its passing was significant to say the least. Not only was it the first UN-sanctioned critique of Israeli settlements in 40 years and the first resolution not vetoed by Washington, it seemed to pave the way for Palestinian officials to head to the International Criminal Court - something they've wanted to do for years.

In the days that followed Israel made good on its promises, gutting financial aid to Senegal, cutting diplomatic ties with New Zealand and sending its ambassador packing, and recalling its own from Wellington. We were now in Israel's bad books, but not for the first time.

Things have actually been on the rocks between us for more than ten years. It began in 2004 when two Israelis were caught attempting to produce a fake passport using the identity of a New Zealand man with cerebral palsy. Then-PM Helen Clark accused the men of being Mossad agents and Israel of attacking the country's sovereignty and breaching international law. Diplomatic ties were cut, ambassadors were sent home. A year later things were paved over, but Israel refused to acknowledge the men were spies.

Fast forward to 2011 and a newspaper investigation into the death of three Israeli citizens found one was potentially part of a team of spies trying to infiltrate computer systems and was carrying five passports. The government dismissed the report but said it had investigated the group. Diplomacy would be tested again just three years later when Netanyahu's government refused to accept a newly-appointed ambassador because he would also be an envoy to the Palestinians.

A Palestinian man raises the national flag in front of Jewish settlers during a demonstration by Palestinian and Israeli activists against the construction of Jewish settlements in the village of Ein al-Beida,

A Palestinian man raises the national flag in front of Jewish settlers during a demonstration by Palestinian and Israeli activists against the construction of Jewish settlements in the village of Ein al-Beida, Photo: AFP

In 2015 the ambassador was reprimanded yet again, in a warning to New Zealand to back away from drafting a resolution in the UN to restart peace negotiations.

Outside government there have been vocal critics of Israel for years. Organisations like Kia Ora Gaza joined several aid convoys to the besieged Gaza Strip and last year two journalists and a Green Party MP were detained aboard flotillas trying to break the siege in international waters.

But not everyone was happy with New Zealand's current role in passing the UN resolution. A group of pro-Israeli protesters rallied outside parliament angry at the governments stance. In Auckland Murray McCully's electorate office was tagged with a message calling him a "traitor" and a "Jew hater".

Despite Netanyahu's dramatic warnings the country's military isn't scrambling to ready its defences and no one is enlisting to fight in the Great Inter-Hemispheric War of the 21st Century. Diplomatic relations will resume sooner or later, although this episode will undoubtedly leave a sour taste.

Trade between the two countries totals just over $100m a year, but that's dwarfed by the $4.8bn yearly trade deals with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait. In fact, New Zealand's role in pushing the resolution will likely be seen favourably in the Gulf states, where the John Key government had practically sealed a decade-old free trade deal.

A placard in the Israeli city of Tel Aviv. Donald Trump had pressed for the US to use its veto to prevent a UN Ssecurity Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements from passing.

A placard in the Israeli city of Tel Aviv. Donald Trump had pressed for the US to use its veto to prevent a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements from passing. Photo: AFP

What does remain to be seen is whether this could affect the relationship between Wellington and president-elect Donald Trump, who described the UN as a "sad club" that's not a "friend to democracy" and promised to veto any future motion criticising Israel. While trade relations are good at the moment, Trump's vocal opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement and his antagonism of China, New Zealand's biggest trading partner, could also create a schism.

New Zealand has always seen itself as the little country that stands its ground. Two incidents, the shut-down of the Springbok tour in 1981 and the ban on US nuclear vessels soon afterwards, remain enshrined in the country's ethos. Perhaps McCully's "declaration of war" on Israel was his way of adding spice to this legacy.

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