Key red-faced after Israeli spy scandal
Tamara McLean, AAP New Zealand Correspondent
July 25, 2011
New Zealand Prime Minister John Key has landed himself in hot water with Israel over his handling of a bizarre tale of would-be spies, hacking and a speedy post-quake escape.
The claim was explosive: a New Zealand newspaper, Southland Times, published accusations earlier this month that a group of Israeli backpackers caught up in Christchurch's February earthquake were in fact spies linked to the Israeli secret service, Mossad.
The newspaper claimed a New Zealand secret service officer revealed fears these four "agents", who were in a van that was crushed in the quake, had hacked into the police national computer system after the quake, gaining access to highly sensitive files.
The driver of the van, Ofer Benyamin Mizrahi, 23, was killed instantly and the other three left the country within 12 hours, alerting suspicions.
The newspaper reported Mizrahi was found with five passports, raising fears of a repeat of a 2004 episode in which two suspected Mossad agents were convicted of passport fraud in Auckland.
To add to the suspicions were reports an unaccredited Israeli search and rescue team had been found inside Christchurch's destroyed CBD in the days after the quake, which killed 181 people.
The story, which blended New Zealand's worst disaster in decades with the mystery of foreign spies, left New Zealanders shocked.
Asked to comment, Mr Key at first declined, saying it was "not in the national interest", but raised suspicions further by confirming he had "a number of calls" from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the day of the quake.
The story and the vague government response triggered a rash of angry editorials in the Israeli media, including the Jerusalem Post, which accused the country of "blatant prejudice".
"The far-fetched fiction disseminated by New Zealand's news outlets seizes on every Israeli facet of the episode - no matter how innocuous - as evidence of nefariouscloak-and-dagger schemes," it wrote.
After his initial stone-walling, Mr Key admitted he hadn't dealt with the issue well, but then went on to upset Israelis more by confirming New Zealand intelligence services had been investigating the claims.
But Mr Key insisted the investigation had found no evidence of wrongdoing.
"Security agencies conducted the investigation and found no evidence that the people were anything other than backpackers," he told journalists.
There had been no breach of the country's computer networks, and no unauthorised access to the Christchurch "red zone" by Israelis, he said.
"The investigations that have been undertaken have been thorough and have found no evidence of a link between the group and Israeli intelligence."
It even turned out there were no "multiple" passports, just two held by the deceased Mizrahi, who also had citizenship in a European country.
And there was in fact just one conversation with Mr Netanyahu, Mr Key said.
The Israeli ambassador for the South Pacific, Shemi Tzur, said he was shocked that there had ever been a suggestion of a Mossad presence in Christchurch, saying the claim was "science fiction".
But for the man behind the initial Times story, respected journalist Fred Tulett, the matter is far from over.
Mr Tulett continues to stand by his story, saying his source has confirmed that despite Mr Key's comments, the official investigation is continuing.