John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan: Would Key expose Israeli spies

Prime Minister John Key has left questions dangling after the incident involving Israelis caught in the February earthquake. Photo / Simon Baker
Prime Minister John Key has left questions dangling after the incident involving Israelis caught in the February earthquake. Photo / Simon Baker

It always happens. I leave the country for two weeks and miss something important.

The Southland Times' discovery that a group of Israeli backpackers were spirited out of Christchurch after one of them was killed in the February earthquake was a subject I thought would be still alive when I got back.

Instead, I was dismayed that after a few days the discussion turned to how the Prime Minister could have been so clumsy as to encourage suspicion by clamming up "in the national interest" when the story was first put to him.

His subsequent assurance that a security investigation had turned up nothing to suggest the four young fellows were nothing other than backpackers seemed to have settled all concerns.

There were questions left dangling about an unexpected search-and-rescue team that arrived from Israel, which was ordered out of the red zone, and a forensic unit that had access to the New Zealand police database - but the Government had raised these matters with Israel's ambassador so that was that.

Personally, I believe John Key's first response. He chose his words carefully in subsequent statements.

I'm not given to suspicion on most subjects. In fact, I worry sometimes that my default setting is naive.

But I don't trust a National Government to tell us much about an incident such as this.

What would have happened, I often wonder, if National had been in office when the Rainbow Warrior was sunk?

Within days of the incident the police knew that a man and a woman they were questioning were undercover French agents.

It would have been easily possible at that point, and quite normal among Western intelligence services, to have shut the police investigation down with an equivalent of the British D-notice secrecy order.

It is possible that media investigation would have established a French connection but we would never have known for certain had then Prime Minister David Lange pulled the police off the case and let the agents go home quietly.

I have not the slightest doubt that is what National would have done.

Previous Labour governments would probably have done the same. But Lange was in his first year of office and not well disposed to Western powers that wouldn't meet him halfway on his party's anti-nuclear nonsense.

Had he foreseen how awkward things would become a few years later when France applied trade pressure to repatriate its agents he might have regretted his decision, though I hope not.

If agents of any foreign power are found to be in this country for a clandestine purpose unknown to the New Zealand Government, it seems to me to be in the national interest that they are exposed.

The present Government, I suspect, takes a different view, and one that accords with advice it receives from its diplomatic and intelligence services.

In this view, the national interest is better served by adhering to the expectations of the Western alliance - or at least its English-speaking members who share intelligence with us.

Led by the United States, the Anglophone club remains fairly sympathetic to Israel and never looks kindly on its smallest, flakiest member breaking ranks.

When two Israelis were jailed in New Zealand in 2004 for attempting to obtain our passports fraudulently, the US ambassador to Wellington sent the State Department an extraordinary cable, which emerged in the WikiLeaks disclosures last year.

Then ambassador Charles Swindells said: "The Clark Government's overly strong reaction suggests [it] sees this flap as an opportunity to bolster its credibility with the Arab community."

We don't get astute US representation here.

According to a security commentator in an Israeli newspaper that year, Mossad had approached the SIS to try to get the incident handled quietly but Helen Clark would not play along.

"She refused to let the debris be cleared out of sight and insisted the two suspects be prosecuted on relatively stiff charges," wrote Ze'ev Schiff in Haaretz.

What, I wonder, would Key have done? His party watched that incident from Opposition and said nothing.

Doubtless it issued a token statement or two but nothing memorable, nothing really angry or disgusted.

So forgive my lingering suspicion. It is always hard to believe secret agents could find anything to do in this country, but then I'd never have believed a French unit would come all this way to sabotage a Greenpeace protest. Secrecy gives free rein to some oddballs.

Israel's agents and authorised killers obviously find English-speaking identities useful. Three of the squad that assassinated a Hamas commander in a Dubai hotel last year were using Australian passports. Others had British and Irish passports.

Another said to be involved had been an accomplice of the pair arrested in New Zealand.

I'd like to visit Arab countries one day. I'd like to trust this Government to protect the integrity of my passport. But I don't.

- NZ Herald

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John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald. A graduate of Canterbury University with a degree in history and a diploma in journalism, he started his career on the Auckland Star, travelled and worked on newspapers in Japan and Britain before returning to New Zealand where he joined the Herald in 1981. He was posted to the Parliamentary Press Gallery in 1983, took a keen interest in the economic reform programme and has been a full time commentator for the Herald since 1986. He became the paper's senior editorial writer in 1988 and has been writing a weekly column under his own name since 1996. His interests range from the economy, public policy and politics to the more serious issues of life.

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