Israel and New Zealand End Diplomatic Crisis Sparked by Anti-settlement Resolution

Israel to return ambassador to Wellington after New Zealand PM expresses regret for damage caused by country’s sponsorship of UN resolution

New Zealand's Foreign Minister Gerry Brownlee speaks during a press conference in Sydney, Australia, May 4, 2017.
Rick Rycroft/AP

Israel and New Zealand have ended the diplomatic crisis that began in December when New Zealand co-sponsored a UN Security Council resolution against the settlements, the Prime Minister’s Office announced on Tuesday.

Israel’s ambassador will therefore return to Wellington in the next few days, after a six-month absence.

Over the past few weeks, the Israeli and New Zealand foreign ministries have held quiet talks in an effort to resolve the crisis. On the Israeli side, the talks were led by Foreign Ministry Director General Yuval Rotem and the head of the ministry’s Asia and Pacific desk, Mark Sofer.

The talks moved into high gear after New Zealand’s new Foreign Minister Gerry Brownlee sent a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a few weeks ago expressing his desire to turn over a new leaf in the bilateral relationship. A few days ago, Netanyahu held a telephone conversation with New Zealand’s prime minister, Bill English.

Following that conversation, Netanyahu’s office said, PM English sent Netanyahu a letter saying he “regrets” the damage done to the bilateral relationship by New Zealand’s sponsorship of Resolution 2334. New Zealand's leader also said his country would welcome the return of Israel’s ambassador.

In response to English’s letter, Israel decided to announce that the crisis was over and Ambassador Itzhak Gerberg would return to Wellington, Netanyahu’s office said in its statement.

A senior Israeli official involved in the reconciliation talks, who asked to remain anonymous, said that for first three months after UN Resolution 2334 passed in late December, bilateral relations were frozen almost completely.

Israel’s ambassador was recalled to Jerusalem and New Zealand’s ambassador to Turkey, who also doubles as its ambassador to Israel, didn’t make a single visit to the Israeli capital because he was informed that no government officials would meet with him.

After those three months, the official said, preliminary talks between the countries began, at New Zealand’s initiative. But during those talks, Israel said that given New Zealand’s conduct since the crisis erupted, Jerusalem’s impression was that Wellington wasn’t actually bothered by the rupture and had no real interest in mending the relationship.

The breakthrough occurred in early May, when New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully, one of the people who had pushed hard for a resolution against the settlements, left office. His replacement, Gerry Brownlee, sent a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on his very first day in office congratulating Israel on its Independence Day and expressing a desire to rehabilitate relations.

After that, the two foreign ministries began intensive talks to find a formula for ending the crisis. Rotem and Sofer held phone calls or exchanged emails with their counterparts in Wellington almost every day, the senior Israeli official said.

Israel made two key demands. First, while it didn’t demand an apology, it did insist that New Zealand’s government express regret for pushing for the vote on Resolution 2334. Second, it demanded a general change in New Zealand’s attitude toward Israel at the United Nations, especially with regard to its votes on resolutions concerning Israel.

New Zealand wasn’t willing to express regret over the fact that the Security Council voted on the resolution, but said it would accept some softer wording. Over the next few weeks, the parties negotiated over the wording, exchanging numerous drafts. Eventually, they agreed that New Zealand would express regret for the damage done to the bilateral relationship by its sponsorship of the resolution against the settlements.

New Zealand initially proposed that this expression of regret come from a senior civil servant, like the Foreign Ministry’s director general, the Israeli official said. But Israel rejected that proposal, insisting that it come from the highest levels of government, to ensure that the government in Wellington itself was committed to the reconciliation, and not just lower-level functionaries. New Zealand agreed to this, resulting in the first telephone call between Netanyahu and English, and then in English’s letter.

The senior Israeli official said that New Zealand didn’t make any explicit promises regarding its attitude toward Israel in UN institutions, but its voting pattern has in fact changed since the reconciliation talks began. Over the past few months, he said, New Zealand hasn’t voted against Israel in a single UN vote.

“We believe we won’t see any moves against Israel by New Zealand in international forums in the near future,” he said. “We’re very happy with the way the crisis ended. We achieved the maximum and we ended up right where we wanted to.”

Last week, following a meeting with Senegal’s president at the ECOWAS summit in Liberia, Netanyahu also announced the return of Israel’s ambassador to Dakar. Senegal, like New Zealand, was one of the four countries that co-sponsored Resolution 2334 and pushed the Security Council to vote on it.