SYDNEY, Australia (Jul. 5)
Two Israelis suspected by New Zealand authorities of being Mossad agents have pleaded guilty to unlawfully attempting to obtain a New Zealand passport. Uri Kelman, 30, and Elisha Cara, 50, pleaded guilty in Auckland’s High Court last week. They will remain in custody until a July 15 sentencing hearing. The crime carries a penalty of up to five years in prison.
The men had been on bail since their first court appearance in April. Two other charges against the men of conspiracy for being part of an organized crime syndicate have been dropped.
The New Zealand Herald said the guilty plea was to prevent the prosecution bringing “diplomatically embarrassing” evidence that the men indeed were Mossad agents involved in criminal activity in New Zealand.
But a major New Zealand television station, TVN, sent a camera crew to Israel to investigate the alleged Mossad connections, but they found nothing definitive.
There have b! een rising tensions recently between New Zealand and Israel.
Last month, the New Zealand Government openly criticized Israel’s policy of bulldozing Palestinian homes and donated $534,000 to aid homeless Palestinians.
In May, two officials from the Jewish Agency for Israel were detained at Auckland Airport on suspicion that the two were Mossad agents, drug-runners or illegally transporting food across borders. One of them reported that he had been told by a customs agent, “We are treating all you Israelis the same — you are nothing but drug dealers and spies.”
In the passport case, Kelman and Cara applied for a New Zealand passport using the birth certificate of a wheelchair-bound cerebral palsy victim.
Two other men were suspected of being involved in the crime. Zev William Barkan, a neighbor of the cerebral palsy patient, has fled the country. A fourth man remains unidentified.
After an earlier hearing, Cara denied that he had any connections to Mossad. ! But New Zealand’s acting foreign minister, Jim Sutton, said at the tim e that the men were “representatives of the Israeli government.”
The arrests spawned a diplomatic brouhaha between New Zealand and the Israeli Embassy in Canberra, Australia, which is responsible for New Zealand.
New Zealand media reported that the acting ambassador, Orna Sagiv, had been summoned to New Zealand where she was “read the riot act.” The embassy did not respond to requests for interviews about the story.
Cara had been to New Zealand many times. He lived in Sydney, Australia, where he allegedly ran a travel agency. His wife and children have since returned to Israel.
New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark has refused to comment until after sentencing, but observers said her government likely would re-evaluate the policy of granting visas to visiting Israelis following the hearing. At present, Israelis do not need a visa to visit the country.
Sagiv also refused to comment on the case until after the sentencing.
Geoff Levy, co-president of the A! uckland Jewish Council and a lawyer on the team defending Cara, told JTA, “Jews in Auckland are not happy with the attention the media has whipped up with regard to this case.”
“We feel very grateful to the New Zealand government and people for making us feel very welcome here. When something like this happens, it can create loyalty problems, which make us feel very uncomfortable,” he said. “Our current government does not have a good record in supporting Israel.”
But Levy said no anti-Semitic incidents had occurred as a result of what is being called the “Mossad affair.”
“We have received reports of Jews, both Israelis and New Zealanders, currently being badly treated by over zealous customs officials when bringing religious articles into the country. However, when I took the matter up with the higher echelons of the Customs Service, they were dealt with positively and efficiently,” Levy said.