SYDNEY, Australia (Feb. 6)
An Israeli diplomat was forced out of the country’s embassy in Australia in an operation that neither government is eager to discuss. Israeli and Australian governments acknowledge that Amir Lati, a diplomat with responsibility for consular affairs, returned to Israel in December at the behest of the Australian Department of Affairs and Trade, but remain tight-lipped about the reason.
Speculation in the Israeli media has been rife since the Ma’ariv and Yediot Achronot newspapers broke the story last week.
Ma’ariv reported that the expulsion may be connected to the arrest and imprisonment of two Israelis in New Zealand last year for fraudulently attempting to obtain New Zealand passports. Israel’s diplomatic affairs with New Zealand are conducted from the Australian embassy.
Members of the New Zealand government claimed the passport affair was connected to the Mossad, but that hasn’t been confirmed. New Zealand’s prime minister, Helen Clark, imposed heavy sanctions on Israeli diplomats following the trial of the two men, who are now back in Israel.
In December, a former Israeli ambassador to Australia and New Zealand, Gabby Levy, returned to the Canberra embassy for a month. Levy had enjoyed a close personal relationship with Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer during his term as ambassador, regularly playing tennis with him.
But some speculate that the reason for Levy’s trip wasn’t just to visit old friends.
In early February, Nati Tamir presented his credentials as the new Israeli ambassador to Australia, a few weeks before the arrival of President Moshe Katsav on an official visit. For most of 2004, there was no Israeli ambassador in Canberra.
During the passport affair, the embassy had been under the control of acting ambassador Orna Sagiv. But it appears that it was Lati who recently left Australia that was responsible for visiting Eli Cara and Uri Kalman before and after their trial in Auckland last July.
The two men also spent extensive time in Sydney, and questions are being asked about their activities in Australia, where Cara purportedly ran a travel business. No one has been able to confirm the existence of the business, though Cara led a seemingly normal life in Sydney with his wife and children, who attended a Jewish day school here.
The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs reportedly told the embassy that if Lati was not withdrawn voluntarily, he would be made persona non grata and the necessary steps to effect his deportation would be taken. That would have brought the affair fully into the public arena.
Orna Sagiv, who was acting ambassador during most of 2004, but was on vacation in Israel during Levy’s December visit, told JTA, "All that really matters is that bilateral relations between the two countries have not been affected by this affair. They remain at an extremely good level."
She would not comment on the reason for Lati’s expulsion.
Last year, Australia was the only country in the developed world to join the United States in voting against a U.N. resolution backing the International Court of Justice’s demand that Israel demolish its West Bank security fence.