Envoy to Canberra may have term cut

Foreign Ministry looking into Naftali Tamir's 'unacceptable' remarks on Asians.

By BEN DANIELS
November 1, 2006 00:22
3 minute read.
Envoy to Canberra may have term cut

naftali tamir 298.88. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Israel's ambassador to Australia is due to have his service curtailed after he allegedly made racist comments, according to sources in the Foreign Ministry and the Australian Jewish community. Naftali Tamir was scheduled to arrive back in Canberra on Wednesday morning after the ministry in Jerusalem concluded its investigation into a newspaper report that quoted him as saying Asians had "yellow skin and slanted eyes." "The ambassador publicly denied the comments that were attributed to him in Ha'aretz. Throughout the Foreign Ministry's review, he continued to deny the comments that were attributed to him and he's now on his way back to Australia," said ministry spokesman Mark Regev. However a diplomatic source in Jerusalem said a tender had been issued for his position, although he was not due to leave the post he entered in January 2005 for at least another two years. Several high-level Jewish leaders, who spoke to the Australian Jewish News on condition of anonymity, suggested that Tamir would remain only until July or August and be returned home early. But they also expressed surprise that Tamir was returning in the meantime, as many had understood from their communications with officials in Jerusalem over the past two weeks that he would be permanently recalled to Jerusalem. Mark Leibler, a former president of the Zionist Federation of Australia, met with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Foreign Ministry director-general Aharon Abramovitch in Israel last week. He acknowledged that he had discussed the Tamir scandal with all three, but otherwise gave a "no comment" on the situation. But Danny Lamm, president of the State Zionist Council of Victoria (SZCV), which is home to the largest Jewish population in Australia, said, "I'm pleased that this issue has been resolved and that the ambassador is returning to his duties. The level of cooperation between the Israeli Embassy and the SZCV has been excellent and I look forward to continuing working with the ambassador for the benefit of Israel and the Australian Jewish community." On October 13, Tamir was quoted saying Israel and Australia were "like sisters in Asia." "We are in Asia without the characteristics of Asians. We don't have yellow skin and slanted eyes. Asia is basically the yellow race. Australia and Israel are not - we are basically the white race. We are on the western side of Asia and they are on the southeastern side." The Foreign Ministry immediately recalled Tamir, who was then traveling to Australia, and issued a statement rebuking his reported comments as "grave and unacceptable," adding if he had been accurately quoted there could not be a return to "business as usual." Australian's Prime Minister John Howard and Foreign Minister Alexander Downer - both of whom have been described as staunch supporters of Israel and the Australian Jewish community - have not commented on the scandal. But the opposition's foreign affairs spokesman, Kevin Rudd, said Tamir's comments, if genuine, were "completely unacceptable." New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, who severed ties with Jerusalem for 18 months starting in 2004, said if the remarks had been made by a Kiwi diplomat there would be "quite severe consequences." David Zwartz, who was Israel's honorary consul in New Zealand before Tamir's appointment as non-resident envoy, cautioned against his return. "If he did say it, I don't think that he would be acceptable as an ambassador here," Zwartz, the immediate past president of the New Zealand Jewish Council, told the Australian Jewish News. Tamir met with Abramovitch on October 24 as part of the investigation. The career diplomat, who has previously served as Israel's envoy to Finland, arrived armed with several letters of support from major Jewish organizations and individuals in Australia. Tamir arrived in Canberra in January 2005 and was later accredited as nonresident ambassador to Papua New Guinea and Fiji. New Zealand also accepted his credentials following a thawing of relations between Wellington and Jerusalem after two alleged Mossad agents were caught in a passport scam. Israel used to have three missions in the South Pacific in addition to the one in Canberra: embassies in Fiji and Wellington, and a consulate in Sydney. All three have closed as part of cost-cutting measures implemented by the Foreign Ministry. Earlier this year, the Israel Tourism Office in Sydney was also closed following more budget cuts. Canberra is now the sole Israeli legation in the region. Hilary Leila Krieger contributed to this report.


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