NEW Zealand and Israel remain good friends despite recent political differences, and Kiwis should feel safe going there, says Israeli ambassador Dr Itzhak Gerberg.
The ambassador was in Gisborne after accepting a church invitation to speak about Israel and the relationship between the two countries.
“There is great interest in New Zealand about Israel,’’ he said.
“Israel is known for its history as a Jewish nation and as a start-up nation. We have very close relations in terms of technology transfer and innovation.
“We are about to sign an agreement with New Zealand on technology and innovation.”
Thousands of New Zealanders visited Israel every year, he said.
Israel withdrew Dr Gerberg from Wellington earlier this year after New Zealand co-sponsored a UN resolution describing its settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory as having no legal validity, constituting a flagrant violation under international law and being a major obstacle to the achievement of the two-state solution.
Diplomatic relations have since been restored, although then Prime Minister Bill English said New Zealand stood by the UN resolution.
“Everything is now OK, more than OK,’’ Dr Gerberg said.
“I just think we are two small countries that share Western values. We were on friendly terms and we remain on friendly terms.”
A small mishap
Dr Gerberg described the diplomatic fallout as “only a small mishap”.
An Israeli publication said hardline Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told then New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully that his actions amounted to a “declaration of war”.
But Dr Gerberg said Netanyahu did not say that.
“Several people asked about that, including several cabinet ministers. I checked. It was a misquote from an Israeli reporter. It was never said.
“It was very important back then, so I checked, because it was a bit too far.”
Dr Gerberg said he attended recent centennial commemorations of the Battle of Beersheba in modern day Israel, where Anzac forces fought in World War 1.
Mr Netanyahu attended, as did New Zealand Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy, who gave ‘‘a nice speech’’. It was a moving ceremony, Dr Gerberg said.
The Governor-General’s presence “helped a lot” in ending the diplomatic fallout.
Dr Gerberg said a few hundred New Zealanders attended the ceremony.
“But it was not the only battle.”
More New Zealanders were killed at Einkara two or three weeks later.
“Forty Kiwis were killed there on their way to Jerusalem, but the battle is less known,” he said.
“There are four military cemeteries in Israel where Anzac soldiers rest.”
Dr Gerberg said the Middle East was in “big turmoil”.
It appeared Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia wanted to improve relations with Israel.
“We are willing to do that because, unfortunately, the Middle East is in big turmoil. Iran, Syria, Lebanon and other Shia groups are trying to form a group ranging from the Mediterranean to the Persian Sea.
Moderate states like Saudi Arabia
“They are very extreme. I think at the other end, you will find states such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and in a way, Israel as part of that coalition.
“Obviously you can see Iran is a dangerous country, not only to Israel, but a danger to the Middle East, even to the Western world.
Dr Gerberg said those people who said Israel was not a safe country to visit “don’t have the right knowledge”.
“Israel is the most secure and safe country in the Middle East. It is the only democracy in the Middle East.
“It is a safe and liberal country. There are a lot of historic sights, beautiful beaches and nice people.
“I think it is one of the best places in the world to visit. This year we have had more than three million tourists, including thousands of New Zealanders.
“New Zealand is a wonderful country, with extremely friendly people.
“I am very pleased to be here to help enhance relations between our two countries.
“We have a lot in common. We should be close friends like we actually are.”