New Zealand’s vote at the UN against Israeli settlements has been called a “declaration of war” by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The country is now in Israel’s bad books, but it’s not the first time, and it probably won’t be the last
It had all the makings of an episode of The Real Housewives of the UN — Israel’s friends, and a few adversaries, staging an intervention for their fellow member. ‘It’s time you stopped with this settlement business’, they said. ‘It’s only making things worse between you and the Palestinians’. 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 even orchestrated the entire 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. 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.
For McCully, this was a moment of truth. Two years ago he addressed the Security Council, when New Zealand first gained its non-permanent seat, and gave a searing indictment of a body that focused on peacekeeping “at the cost of conflict resolution”.
He promised that his Pacific nation would take this chance to lead, and focus on getting the derailed Middle East Peace Process back on track. So when he received the phone call from Netanyahu, there was just under a month left before he had to give up the seat at the table, and it was now or never.
The resolution passed 14–0 with the US abstaining, and its passing was significant. Not only was it the first UN sanctioned critique of Israeli settlements in 40 years and the first resolution not vetoed by the US, it could also 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 would make good on its promises, gutting financial aid to Senegal, and cutting diplomatic ties with New Zealand, sending its ambassador packing and recalling its own for consultation. The country was now in its bad books, but not for the first time.
In fact, things have been on the rocks between the two friendlies 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 in the midst of the devastating Canterbury earthquake, a newspaper’s 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 remained intact, but 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. 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, others 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 is happy with the country’s current role in passing the UN resolution. A group of pro-Israeli protesters rallied outside parliament angry at the government’s stance. In Auckland, the Murray McCully’s electorate office was tagged with a message calling him a ‘traitor’ and a ‘jew hater’.
Despite Netanyahu’s dramatic warnings, it’s unlikely an all-out war will break out between New Zealand and Israel. 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, though 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.
What does remain to be seen is whether this could impact a future relationship with President-elect Donald Trump, who’s 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 in good spirits 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. In 1981 at the height of the Apartheid regime, protesters shut down a tour by South Africa’s rugby team, the Springboks. Three years later, the Lange government barred nuclear vessels from entering New Zealand waters, prompting the US to suspend it from its ANZUS Treaty. The policy would become law in 1987 — and remain enshrined in the country’s ethos three decades later. For Murray McCully, declaring “war” on Israel was perhaps his own way of adding to this legacy.