The spy who wasn't me

MK Shai Hermesh recalls being arrested on a visit to New Zealand.

shai hermesh 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
shai hermesh 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Knesset members are used to receiving a special welcome when they travel abroad. But for MK Shai Hermesh (Kadima), one welcome went awry when he was arrested by airport officials in New Zealand for being a Mossad spy. The incident, which returned to haunt him this week, occurred in May 2004, while Hermesh was treasurer of the Jewish Agency for Israel. Leaders of the New Zealand Jewish community were scheduled to pick him up from the airport and escort him on a whirlwind tour of Kiwi Jewry. As soon as Hermesh left the plane and presented his diplomatic papers to customs officials, he was whisked aside to a private room and had everything, even the socks on his feet, taken away and examined. "They looked at everything, down to the waistband of my underwear," said Hermesh. "They saw the names of politicians and parliamentary officials in my notebook and started questioning me about them. They kept me for hours and just couldn't believe I really was there on official business." Only two weeks prior to Hermesh's trip, the New Zealand police had caught two real Mossad agents, while a third slipped through their fingers. The airport had been put on high alert that the third agent might try to reenter New Zealand, and Hermesh apparently fit the bill. "I never thought of becoming a Mossad agent," said Hermesh, who has earned a reputation for his mild-mannered pleasantness in the Knesset. "But if I ever wanted to join, this incident has ruined my chances." Hermesh had thought the incident over and done with, until this week, when a friend of his told him that several "white pride" Web sites based in the United States listed him as a "dangerous Mossad spy." "I looked at the Web site and they have my picture and a warning to 'beware,'" said Hermesh. "They even had my assistant, the one who traveled with me to New Zealand for that trip, listed as a Mossad agent." One good thing may have come of the incident: Because the story made headlines in New Zealand at the time, Hermesh received a phone call from the prime minister, Helen Clark, who apologized for any inconvenience. "I never would have gotten to talk to her otherwise," said Hermesh. Then-prime minister Ariel Sharon, who was a close friend of Hermesh's, also called the MK at his hotel room. "He asked if he needed to send a special elite unit to pick me up," said Hermesh. "Arik always knew how to take care of his own."