U.S. diplomats criticized New Zealand's reaction to the 2004 arrest of two suspected Israeli spies, accusing New Zealand's government of using the affair to increase its export of lamb to Arab states, the Guardian reported on Tuesday, citing cables released by WikiLeaks.
Ties between Israel and New Zealand grew strained after two Israelis, thought to be Mossad agents, were caught trying to illegally forge local passports. New Zealand's then-Prime Minister Helen Clark suspended high-level diplomatic relations until Israel formally apologized over the incident in 2005.
According to the Guardian report, a July 2004 cable sent to Washington by U.S. diplomats read: "The GoNZ [government of New Zealand] has little to lose by such stringent action, with limited contact and trade with Israel, and possibly something to gain in the Arab world, as the GoNZ is establishing an embassy in Egypt and actively pursuing trade with Arab states."
Another cable sent two days later reportedly said that the New Zealand government "sees this flap as an opportunity to bolster its credibility with the Arab community, and by doing so, perhaps, help NZ lamb and other products gain greater access to a larger and more lucrative market."
The two suspected Israeli agents eventually reached a plea bargain and admitted to some of the charges against them, including applying for a passport using the identity of a quadriplegic man.
They were tried for attempting to obtain a passport fraudulently, but not for spying, were sentenced to six months in prison and fined some $50,000. After serving three months in prison they were released and sent back to Israel.
It transpired during the police investigation and from statements of New Zealand cabinet ministers that the group was involved in a Mossad operation to obtain New Zealand passports, which they had planned to use in future operations of an unclear nature.