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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
As a sign that relations with New Zealand are back on track, Israel will re-open the embassy it closed in Wellington some four years ago, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said Wednesday.
Shalom's announcement came prior to a meeting in his Jerusalem office with New Zealand's new ambassador to Israel, Jan Henderson, the first such meeting since the arrest of two Israelis on charges of passport fraud in March 2004 sent Israeli-New Zealand ties into a tail-spin.
New Zealand government officials charged that the two men, who were arrested and later convicted, were Mossad agents, a charge never admitted by Israel.
Israel closed its embassy in New Zealand before the passport forgery scandal even broke, as part of a cost-cutting measure that saw the closure of a number of embassies and consulates around the globe. New Zealand has never had an embassy here, and its ambassador to Turkey also serves as non-resident ambassador to Israel.
Shalom said before the meeting that Henderson's visit was another brick in returning Israel's ties with New Zealand back to normal, and that the decision to reopen Israel's embassy there was "an additional step toward improving ties with New Zealand."
Shalom said that both sides worked hard in order to end the crisis, and "I am very happy that the crisis has come to its conclusion."
Henderson said that she feels that relations with Israel have now returned to "business as usual, and we are delighted. New Zealand has had a wonderful feeling for Israel, and we want to build the relationship."
Israel's ambassador to New Zealand, Naphtali Tamir, presented his credentials in Wellington last August.
Shalom sent a letter of apology in June to his New Zealand counterpart Phil Goff that ended the passport crisis.
Ties between the two countries soured badly after Uriel Kelman and Eli Cara were arrested for trying to fraudulently obtain passports. They were later convicted, fined $100,000 and served half of a six-month sentence. They were deported back to Israel in September.
The New Zealand government maintained that the two were Mossad agents and Prime Minister Helen Clark froze relations with Israel until Shalom issued a formal apology and commitment that similar actions would not take place in the future.
An innocuous announcement of the Shalom-Henderson meeting Wednesday seemed to be the first official Israeli admission of a Mossad angle to the affair, with the communique stating that the meeting would be the first at this level "since the incident with the Mossad".
But Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said that this was merely a clerical error, and not an official admission of Mossad involvement. According to Regev, the words "incident with the Mossad" should have been in quotation marks, as a signal that this was only a New Zealand allegation.