The 'Key' to Better Ties (Extract)

The election of John Key, New Zealand's new Jewish prime minister, portends an era of warmer relations and increased trade with Israel

20key224 (photo credit: AP)
(photo credit: AP)
Extract from a story in Issue 20, January 19, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. New Zealand is about as far from Israel as one can get. So, perhaps it is not surprising that the land of kiwis, breathtaking Lord of the Rings vistas and what sounds like the ultimate oxymoron - the Christchurch Jewish Synagogue - has had only a distant relationship with the Jewish state over the years. But those ties, marked by meager trade relations and strained by a diplomatic scandal in 2004, seem to be strengthening lately, buoyed by an increase in bilateral trade and the election of a new Jewish prime minister, who has pledged to nurture ties with Israel and pay an official visit to the country. New Zealand's Jewish community numbers less than 10,000 and is centered in Auckland, the country's largest city and business capital. The community dates back to the the 1830s, when Jewish traders from Europe joined the earliest groups of British settlers just beginning to move into their newest colony. It was one of the first countries in the world to elect a Jewish prime minister - Sir Julius Vogel headed its government in the 1870s. (Sir Francis Henry Dillon Bell, who later converted to Christianity, was prime minister for a fortnight in 1925.) In late November 2008, John Key, a 47-year-old self-made multimillionaire who rose from a childhood of poverty to a prominent foreign currency trading position in London and then to the leadership of the conservative National Party of New Zealand, took office as the third Jewish prime minister in the country's history. Key has stressed domestic issues, such as tax cuts and pro-business policies, which contrast with those of his Labor Party predecessor Helen Clark. He has not made foreign policy a priority. But many regarded his willingness to grant an interview to Israel Radio on his first day in office, during which he expressed interest in nurturing ties with Israel and even in paying an official visit to Jerusalem, as signaling the beginning of a new phase of diplomatic relations that comes in the wake of several difficult years that have also had a deleterious effect on business between the two countries. New Zealand's trade ties with Israel, totaling NZ$107 million (US$57 million) per year, are minor relative to Israel's annual imports and exports to the European Union and the United States, but they have been quietly expanding in recent years. The trade patterns are heavily lopsided in favor of Israeli exports to New Zealand: while Israel imports NZ$16.85 million (US$9 million) of goods from New Zealand, it exports about five times as much, NZ$91.65 ($49 million). The main Israeli exports are machinery parts, steam turbines, water heaters, telecommunications equipment and irrigation systems. Israeli imports from New Zealand include aluminum, sugar, radar apparatus, electronic circuit boards, milk products and mutton. Sheep products are, of course, a huge component of New Zealand's economy - local newspapers in New Zealand typically include sections detailing farming statistics and articles on the latest world prices for bales of wool - but very little of New Zealand's famed sheep (or beef or even deer) meat makes its way to Israeli supermarkets, because they restrict their sales to kosher meat. (Several years ago, New Zealand successfully found a way to expand its meat exports to Muslim countries through the construction of halal-certified abattoirs.) New Zealand has also complained in the past that Israeli protective barriers have prevented significant trade in agricultural products. One of the most prominent Israeli-New Zealand ventures in recent years has been led by Ormat, an Israeli company specializing in geothermal energy, which operates plants in the United States, the Philippines, Kenya and Nicaragua, in addition to ten electricity generating plants in New Zealand. The total capacity of Ormat's power plants in New Zealand exceeds 200 megawatts, mainly produced by converting geothermal steam and brine from geothermal wells into electric power. New Zealand is one of the world's leading countries in its commitment to generating electricity from non-fossil fuel sources. Since 2001, Israel's dairy giant Tnuva and New Zealand's Fonterra cooperative, the sixth-largest dairy company in the world, have been jointly operating a whey processing plant near Mt. Tabor in the north of Israel. A New Zealand Israel Trade Association (NZITA) was established in 1994, the same year an official Israeli trade office was opened in Auckland in order to boost business opportunities and help Israeli businesses seeking contacts in New Zealand. The NZITA publishes newsletters and economic updates, hosts trade delegations and other events to promote bilateral trade, and assists visiting Israelis in opening doors. It maintains good relations with New Zealand officials for promoting trade with Israel, but prefers to work "discreetly." In this, says Mike Nathan, one of the founders of NZITA and its current CEO, it is much like the New Zealand Jewish community itself. "New Zealand Jews are not given to making a loud fuss," says Nathan. "We blend more into the background, working quietly to look after our interests." Nathan routinely drops the names of high-ranking New Zealand officials, from the prime minister down, on a first-name basis in conversations, a testimony to the years of "low-key, behind-the-scenes" contacts he has forged since his student days at Auckland University. Born in Auckland in 1949, Nathan joined a group of New Zealand Jews who rushed to volunteer in Israel during the initial hours of the Six-Day War, "getting on the first available flight," as he puts it. Enamored of the country in its euphoric post-victory period in 1967, he returned to Israel for several years after completing a law degree in New Zealand in 1972. He eventually went back "down under" to take up an executive position in marketing at Kraft Foodservices' Australian office. His success there led to his being tapped to establish the Kraft Foodservice office in his native New Zealand, where today he is the director of Pop Tech Media, a digital electronic media advertising company, in addition to running NZITA. His work at NZITA frequently involves hosting missions from Israel and leading New Zealand missions visiting Israel to match up with successful Israeli companies and venture capital funds. He is already speaking of leading a similar mission of businessmen to accompany Prime Minister John Key on his expected visit to Israel and the Middle East. That trip might also include visits to Gallipoli, Turkey and locations in Israel, where New Zealand armed forces saw action in World War I, to underscore New Zealand's deep involvement in the region. "New Zealand voted in favor of establishing Israel [in the 1947 United Nations vote on partition]," notes Nathan, "and there was even a proposal prior to Israel's founding for the creation of a Jewish homeland on Stewart Island [the southernmost of New Zealand's three islands]. Who knows what might have happened if that proposal had been taken seriously." An affable and genial man, Nathan proudly shows off the Auckland Jewish community center, a modern, beautifully constructed complex that includes a synagogue, kosher deli and Hebrew day school for pre-secondary school education. The community is largely liberal in its religious observance, with few ultra-Orthodox families. "You don't come to New Zealand if you are looking for an intensive Jewish experience - in that case you'd be more likely to find it in Sydney or Melbourne," says Nathan, reaching for comparison to Australia, the neighboring continent with which it seems New Zealanders perpetually feel themselves to be in competition. While the Jewish community in Australia, numbering 120,000, is the largest in the Asian-Pacific region, the Jewish population of New Zealand is less than 10,000, comprising perhaps a fifth of a percent of the total population of the country. But it is well-organized. An official New Zealand Jewish Council serves as an umbrella organization for synagogues, Jewish organizations and two Zionist youth movements. According to Wendy Ross, former president of the Council, it is often called upon to serve as a "public affairs committee" and expected to speak as the voice of the Jewish community to the general public and guard against expressions of anti-Semitism. "What we have managed to do is actually amazing given our small numbers," she says, noting that there is high demand for enrolment in Auckland's Hebrew Day School even among non-Jews, who admire its small classes, structured environment and high-quality teaching. Extract from a story in Issue 20, January 19, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.