On 27 January, New Zealand Minister of Defence, Ron Mark, National Party Foreign Affairs and Trade spokesperson, Tim Macindoe, and other delegates met with Israeli Prime Minister and Minister of Defence, Benjamin Netanyahu.
As well as Israel, the delegation visited Egypt, and South Sudan with the objective of improved understanding of the missions the NZDF is involved with and the strategic priorities and concerns of New Zealand’s key security partners.
We reported on the meeting with Mr Netanyahu but Minister Mark and Mr Macindoe were still travelling and unable to give their reflections. They have now returned and offered comment to The Israel Institute of New Zealand.
Minister Mark served in Sinai with the NZDF then and helped establish the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) mission there. While working in the area on behalf of New Zealand, Mr Mark said he didn’t get much leave to be a tourist “I didn’t get to the Sea of Galilee. I never went to Masada. On the Egyptian side, I didn’t see the valley of the Kings. I didn’t see Luxor. I didn’t see anything. We just worked.”
It was the first visit to Israel for Mr Macindoe and he says “the time passed all too quickly. I was struck by the beauty and cleanliness of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and wish there had been more time to explore those parts of the country”.
Both diplomats expressed an interest in returning on a personal visit with their respective partners to take in the sights, and both cited the Old City as a highlight of the short period of free time they had before the official meetings began. Mr Macindoe commented that
“arriving on a Friday evening, just as Shabbat was commencing, was especially timely and memorable. We were privileged to visit the Old City and to witness Jewish worshippers at the Western (Wailing) Wall, before passing the Stations of the Cross on our way up to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and immersing ourselves in the sacred Christian site of the crucifixion. Both were deeply moving experiences for me.” Tim Macindoe
And Mr Mark also referred “to be walking the same path that Christ walked was quite overwhelming, actually… I think the entire delegation were quite appropriately taken by that evening.”
The official engagements were considered “very constructive and warm on both the Israeli and Egypt sides” by Minister Mark. Mr Macindoe confirmed this and said Mr Netanyahu “was very warm in his comments about New Zealand and expressed his appreciation of our Defence Force’s long-standing commitment to regional security.”
The history and enduring legacy of the 1978 Camp David Accords that resulted in an historic peace treaty between Israel and Egypt was discussed. Egyptian president Sadat was the first Arab leader to make an official visit to Israel and to make peace with Israel. Part of the agreement was that Israel would hand over the Sinai peninsula to Egypt – an area of land almost three times as large as Israel.
International forces have been deployed in the area to monitor the peace agreement. Unfortunately, one of the more modern challenges has been dealing with terror groups affiliated with Islamic State from embedding in the region.
Minister Mark was optimistic about the response to this new threat, saying
“Egypt [working with Israel] has put more into infrastructure, into housing and social service delivery and monitoring what they were doing and making sure it was effective… I’m confident that they will not just defeat ISIS physically, they will defeat those things that will give rise to the emergence of things like ISIS by addressing them at the core.” Ron Mark
While this remains to be seen, the continuing and strengthening relations between Israel and Egypt in combating a shared enemy mirrors similar ties with Saudi and Gulf States as their shared enemy, Iran gains power, particularly in Syria and Lebanon, and continues to test weapon systems.
During the meeting between New Zealand and Israeli officials, Mr Netanyahu also pointed out the symbolism of the meeting taking place on International Holocaust Remembrance Day. While not in the recording of the stand-up, both Mr Macindoe and Mr Mark said they acknowledged that also and Mr Macindoe shared with Mr Netanyahu his pride at addressing a number of Holocaust remembrance events in Hamilton. The primary import of the symbolism is that antisemitism has mutated such that the old tropes that singled out Jews in Europe and Arab nations in the 1930s are being re-used with Israel singled out as ‘Jew among the nations’.
Despite some of this extreme anti-Israel sentiment seeping into New Zealand politics, both Mr Macindoe and Mr Mark were positive about the relationship between the two countries. Although Mr Mark said he would prefer if the trade imbalance wasn’t so far in Israel’s favour and cited the Israeli high tech success story as a possible future avenue of engagement.
Overall, the tour sounds like a resounding success, just like the missions NZDF troops undertake and assist in the region. Official diplomatic meetings are vital to mutually beneficial future relationships that already seem to be well grounded.