Envoy to Canberra to Have Term Cut Short for 'Yellow Race' Remarks

Charlotte Halle
Charlotte Hallé
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Charlotte Halle
Charlotte Hallé

The Israeli envoy to Australia whose comments about Asians caused a storm there will have his term shortened, Foreign Ministry sources said yesterday.

Ambassador Naftali Tamir, who described Australia and Israel as white sisters amid "the yellow race" in an interview with Haaretz, which appeared on October 13, is now on his way back to Canberra following a two-week review process in Jerusalem, where he denied having made the comments attributed to him, Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said.

However, sources in the ministry say that an internal tender for his post - which includes non-resident accreditation to New Zealand and Papua New Guinea - will be issued shortly, and that several senior diplomats have already shown interest in the post.

"Israel and Australia are like sisters in Asia," Tamir said in the interview with Haaretz during a visit to Israel three weeks ago. "We are in Asia without the characteristics of Asians. We don't have yellow skin and slanted eyes. Asia is basically the yellow race. Australia and Israel are not - we are basically the white race. We are on the western side of Asia and they are on the southeastern side."

Following the publication of the interview, Tamir was immediately recalled to Israel while en route to Australia to explain his comments. The ministry swiftly condemned the reported remarks as "grave and unacceptable," adding that it would not return to business as usual if its internal review confirmed the ambassador had indeed made the statements.

Regev refrained from commenting on whether Tamir's version of events was accepted by his seniors at the ministry, stating only: "The ambassador denied the remarks attributed to him immediately following their publication and he did so through all stages of the internal Foreign Ministry review. He is on his way back and will arrive in Australia tomorrow."

Under usual circumstances, Tamir, who arrived in Canberra in January 2005, would have been expected to remain in post for four years, but his return date is now likely to be sometime in 2007.

Tamir's anticipated early departure from his post is aimed at minimizing the damage caused by the affair, say sources close to the ministry. The plan to shorten Tamir's term of office will be made clear to his host governments, a ministry insider added. In Australia the comments were labeled as "completely unacceptable" by opposition politician Kevin Rudd, while New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark was reported as saying: "If the remarks are as reported, of course they are completely unacceptable. If they were made by anyone in our public service, there would be quite severe consequences."

The affair, given its widespread coverage in the media in Australia, has put the Jewish community there in a highly embarrassing position, as its members struggled to balance between their default position of backing Israel's highest representative in the region and distancing themselves from the comments.

It is still unclear what reception Tamir will face on his return to Canberra. While the Jewish community is likely to rally round the ambassador, the Australian government and particularly the media may be less understanding. Some in Australia's Jewish community fear that Tamir's return will cause further damage, providing ammunition to those who charge that Israel is a racist state and that the Australian government should moderate its overtly pro-Israel stance.

Diplomatic observers have speculated that firing or recalling Tamir without conclusive proof (as the interview was not taped) that he made the comments would leave the ministry open to legal action. "The ministry didn't have much room for maneuver," said one insider.

The ministry response to the incident has been followed closely by those keen to see how its relatively new leadership, under Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and director general Aharon Abramovich, handles a crisis. While the ministry's initial strong and swift response won widespread praise, observers will take note as to whether senior officials will follow through quickly in seeking a suitable replacement for Tamir.

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