Government shuts out Israeli general

By Patrick Goodenough

The Government has blocked a private one-day visit to New Zealand by Israel's second most senior military officer.

Deputy Chief of Staff Major-General Gabi Ashkenazi was to have addressed a meeting in Auckland last Sunday of the United Israel Appeal, the premier Jewish fundraising agency.

A spokesman for Foreign Minister Phil Goff confirmed yesterday that a visa had been refused and linked the decision to the unresolved diplomatic row over the passport fraud affair.

He said General Ashkenazi's proposed visit "fell well outside the relevant guidelines" established by the Government last July.

This was after two Israelis, believed to be Mossad agents, tried to obtain a passport by assuming the identity of a disabled New Zealander.

Among the steps taken were restrictions on high-level visits from Israel to New Zealand.

A spokesman for the Prime Minister said yesterday that Helen Clark "could not recall" whether General Ashkenazi's visa application had been run past her, but "a matter like that would be the Foreign Minister's decision - and it would be in keeping with the official position on contacts with Israel at present".

The Immigration Service turned down the application just days before the planned trip.

In the end, senior Cabinet minister Natan Sharansky spoke to the 180-strong Auckland audience by phone from Jerusalem.

United Israel Appeal officials in Auckland and Sydney declined to comment.

But one Auckland Jew said the local community was pretty disappointed.

"Why are such people rejected access when representatives of undemocratic states are here all the time?"

Many New Zealand Jews were dismayed when Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi - whose Government's stated goals include the destruction of Israel - visited New Zealand in August for talks with the Government.

Act foreign affairs spokesman Ken Shirley said that refusing a visa application from an Israeli planning "a non-official visit to a private organisation is a gross incursion into basic freedoms that we expect in this country".

"I think it's becoming pathetic," Mr Shirley said. "The Government's unnecessarily making a political issue about this."

Speaking from Tel Aviv, a spokesman for General Ashkenazi's office would not comment, other than to say the general had decided not to visit New Zealand "for personal reasons".

The United Israel Appeal is a non-political organisation which since the 1920s has raised funds around the world to help Jewish immigration, absorption of new arrivals in Israel and education.

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