Australian-Israel ties in ‘big crisis,’ Jerusalem says

Shortly after forged passport issue came to light, Canberra effectively ignored Israeli Embassy.

May 26, 2010 05:32
3 minute read.
A banner poster ofMahmoud al-Mabhouh

Mabhouh 311 AP. (photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)


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Diplomatic officials in Jerusalem on Tuesday termed Australia’s eviction of an Israeli diplomat a day earlier a “big crisis” in ties between the two countries, and one that will take considerable effort and some time to overcome.

Canberra on Monday announced that after an internal investigation it concluded that Israel was behind the forgery of Australian passports used in the killing of Hamas commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in a Dubai hotel, and as a result was giving an Israeli diplomat a week to leave the country.

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Although the name of the diplomat has not been revealed, he is widely believed to be the Mossad’s station chief in Australia.
Sources told The Jerusalem Post that shortly after Israel’s envoy to Australia, Yuval Rotem, was called into the Australian Foreign Ministry in February and “dressed down” over the issue, “the level of contacts between the embassy and the government was severely reduced, and for six weeks there was absolutely no contact.” 

According to the sources, only in the last few weeks have there been meetings between embassy staff and top government officials, including one recently with Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s national security adviser.

The situation is expected to further deteriorate, with Foreign Minister Stephen Smith telling the press Monday that Australia has traditionally “had a close and firm friendship with Israel. In the past that has included cooperation on intelligence cooperation matters. Clearly, as a result of today’s events, there will be something of a cooling-off period, so far as relevant agencies are concerned. And just as in the United Kingdom, time will tell how long that may or may not be.”

Britain kicked an Israeli diplomat out of London in March over the issue, and three other countries whose passports were allegedly misused – Ireland, France and Germany – are still conducting investigations. An Irish decision on the matter is expected in a matter of days.

Smith added, however, that “from the government’s perspective, we want to have a good relationship with Israel … We believe it is in our national interest and Israel’s national interest for there to be cooperation on intelligence and security matters, particularly, for example, in some of the challenges that confronts not just Israel, not just the Middle East but the international community, for example, Iran’s nuclear program.”

Israeli officials said it was unclear how long the “cooling-off period” in intelligence and security cooperation would continue.

Smith said that the incident would not impact on Australia’s generally favorable voting record on Israel in international bodies, and denied it had done so in the past.

In February Israeli officials said that the episode might have been the reason why Australia chose to abstain, rather than vote for Israel, on a vote in the UN General Assembly to keep the Goldstone Commission Report alive.

Sources pointed out, however, that since the Rudd government came into power some 2-1/2 years ago, there has been a “slippage” in Canberra’s voting record on Israel and that it pre-dated the Dubai hit.

Colin Rubenstein, head of the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council, issued a statement saying that while the organization understood and sympathized with the government’s responsibility to protect the integrity of the Australian passport system, kicking out the Israeli diplomat was overkill.

“In our view, this response was unhelpful,” Rubenstein said. “Australia has already made clear its displeasure over the abuse of Australian passports in the strongest of possible terms, which we believe was adequate to fulfill the Government’s responsibilities.”

The move continued to generate controversy in Australia, with top Australian politicians at odds on Tuesday over the matter.

Smith charged that opposition foreign affairs spokeswoman Julie Bishop was “not fit to occupy a position of trust,” over her response to the affair, according to The Australian.

Bishop said Monday there was no hard proof Israel was behind the duplicated passports, and that the government’s actions were an attempt to “curry favor” within the Arab community, and win a seat on the UN Security Council.

The Sydney Morning Herald on Tuesday quoted her as saying that Australia has also forged passports in the past.

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