David Fickling in Sydney
The Guardian, Friday July 16 2004
The prime minister of New Zealand angrily denounced Israel and imposed diplomatic sanctions on it after two suspected Mossad agents were jailed for six months for trying on false grounds to obtain a New Zealand passport.
The plot, which involved obtaining a passport in the name of a tetraplegic man who had not spoken in years, provoked a furious reaction yesterday.
"The breach of New Zealand laws and sovereignty by agents of the Israeli government has seriously strained our relationship with Israel," said the prime minister, Helen Clark.
"This type of behaviour is unacceptable internationally by any country. It is a sorry indictment of Israel that it has again taken such actions against a country with which it has friendly relations."
High-level visits between the two countries will be cancelled, visa restrictions imposed for Israeli officials, and an expected visit to New Zealand by Moshe Katsov, the Israeli president, later this year has been cancelled.
Ms Clark said Israel had ignored requests made three months ago for an explanation and an apology.
The action marks the most serious rupture in New Zealand's international relations since Wellington suspended diplomatic relations with France in 1985 after French agents bombed Greenpeace's anti-nuclear ship Rainbow Warrior in Auckland harbour.
The Mossad plot was uncovered in March when a passport officer noticed that a passport applicant was speaking with a Canadian or American accent.
The clue led to the uncovering of a complex conspiracy involving up to four Israeli agents, who had attempted to create a false identity for 36-year-old Zev Barkan, another suspected Israeli spy, using a fraudulent birth certificate, a fake voicemail message and letter box, and concocted medical symptoms.
Uriel Kelman, 30, and Eli Cara, 50, were each sentenced to six months in prison yesterday for their involvement in the plot. Both men had gone to elaborate steps to conceal their identities: Kelman appeared at the court wearing a balaclava and covered his face throughout the two-hour hearing, while Cara had changed his hair colour, complexion and build since his first court appearance in March.
Mr Barkan and a fourth man believed to have been connected to the plot are still on the run. Mr Barkan lived in a house just a few hundred metres from his target, a wheel-chair user who has not been named for legal reasons. Cara set up a false travel agency in Sydney to aid the deception.
A birth certificate was obtained using details of the man's mother, who now lives in England, and an Auckland doctor was persuaded to witness Mr Barkan's passport application after seeing him for a couple of minor ailments.
Kelman and Cara were arrested in March following a prolonged cat-and-mouse game in Auckland when police traced phone records between Mr Barkan and the two men.
Officers planned to arrest the ringleaders as they picked up the completed passport, but Cara had pre-empted this by having it sent by courier to an apartment block, where it was to be collected by a taxi driver and taken to a rendezvous with Kelman elsewhere in Auckland.
Police surveillance caught Cara acting suspiciously, close to the central Auckland apartment block, while Kelman was arrested after fleeing the other rendezvous and throwing his mobile phone into a hedge.
Israel's acting ambassador in Australia, Orma Sagiv, said Israel would work to rebuild relations with New Zealand.
"Israel values its relations with New Zealand very much and we will do everything we can to return relations to their former situation," she said.
In Jerusalem, Silvan Shalom, the Israeli foreign minister, said Israel was disappointed with New Zealand's reaction.
"Israel is very sorry about the decision that was taken by the [New Zealand] government," Mr Shalom said. "But we believe that if we will work one with each other as we used to work in the past, we will overcome the last difficulty."
Mossad has frequently been accused of using fake passports to launch its operations. A 1997 incident in which Mossad agents used fake Canadian passports in an attempt to assassinate the Hamas leader, Sheikh Khaled Mashal, caused the Israeli ambassador to be ordered out of Canada until Tel Aviv promised to cease the practice.