By last night the Government appeared to be in damage control mode over remarks made by the new Foreign Minister, Gerry Brownlee in a Radio New Zealand interview.
Brownlee himself was in Sydney meeting Australian Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop and well away from the confusion, his remarks provoked.
His spokesperson told POLITIK he was saying no more.
Instead, Deputy Prime Minister Paula Bennett was left having to try and explain to Parliament what he had actually been saying.
The trouble began in an RNZ “Morning Report” interview.
Brownlee was asked about the New Zealand sponsored United Nations Security Council resolution last December which condemned Israel settlements in the occupied territories.
Since it was put before the Security Council, the resolution has been endorsed and defended by both the former Foreign Minister, Murray McCully and the Prime Minister.
“The value of any resolution is in how much support it gets and the willingness of the parties who are having the resolution imposed upon them to accept what’s in it,” Brownlee said.
“I think it was just premature.
“When you are looking at a resolution which is demanding an outcome it is important to know that the outcome is a possibility.
“I’m not going to make a statement saying we were right or wrong but I think what we have got is a relationship with Israel which is an important country in that part of the world and for the stability of that part of the world.”
During Question Time Greens foreign affairs spokesperson, Kennedy Graham, asked Brownlee the obvious.
Did he support the New Zealand sponsored UN Security Council resolution of 23 December 2016 that condemned the expansion of Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territory?
Because Brownlee was in Sydney, Bennett replied on his behalf: “Yes”.
So despite Brownlee earlier saying he wasn ‘t going to say whether the resolution was right or wrong he was now saying (through Bennett) that he supported it.
And then Graham asked whether in light of the Minister’s comment on radio that the resolution was “premature”, did the Minister agree with the New Zealand ambassador to the United Nations, who said at the Security Council meeting on the day of 23 December: “Today’s resolution confirmed principles that have long been accepted in the United Nations …. While more could have been done, the text was achievable ‘right now’.”?
Bennett: “I believe those comments around being premature were more in light of the fact that we would have liked to have given Israel notice of the resolution, and our part in that, but did not.”
But Brownlee appeared to have said that the resolution was premature because it imposed a settlement on the parties they were not ready to accept.
The issue is an important one because there are divisions within the National Cabinet and caucus over it and there has been intense lobbying and agitation by pro-Israel forces within New Zealand.
Mr Brownlee’s companion in Sydney yesterday has also been critical of New Zealand’s move in sponsoring the resolution.
Australia would not have supported a UN resolution condemning Israel’s settlements program in the West Bank and east Jerusalem; she said last December.
She said Australia did not support “one-sided resolutions targeting Israel”.
The Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said the resolution was tantamount “to a declaration of war” and Israel withdrew its Ambassador to New Zealand.
Brownlee has written to Netanyahu suggesting that the pair revive the relationship.
The Israeli newspaper, “Haaretz”, yesterday reported a senior Israeli official as saying the communique from Brownlee was New Zealand’s first overture since then.
“We received the letter and are studying what it means,” said the official, calling it a major and positive reconciliatory step.
Brownlee’s spokesperson said he was hopeful the letter would act as a catalyst to positive discussion between the two governments and an eventual healing of the relationship.
“At this point, we’ll just give them the opportunity to respond should they chose to,” the spokesperson said.
There are some delicate politics in this.
McCully and the New Zealand permanent representative to the UN, Gerard van Bohemen, have both argued (with some justification) that the resolution contained nothing new; that the wording in it had previously been supported in other resolutions either within the General Assembly or Security Council by New Zealand.
NZ First Leader, Winston Peters, has picked up a claim made by the pro-Israel right-wing blogger, “Whaleoil” that the resolution should have been referred to Cabinet.
Bennett told Parliament yesterday that that could not have happened because it occurred on December 23 and Cabinet did not meet that week and that the Cabinet Manual did not require that it be referred anyway.
If New Zealand were to back away from its stand just six months after it sponsored the resolution, its credibility at the UN would take a severe hit.
Brownlee is going to have step very carefully through this mine field.