Key will have to say more on Israeli spy claims

21:39, Nov 06 2011

John Key's reaction to today's allegations about Israeli citizens operating out of Christchurch at the time of the earthquake is extraordinary.

Key was repeatedly asked today whether he could confirm or deny the facts of Fred Tulett's explosive story carried by Fairfax today but refused, because he "deemed" that it was not in the national interests for him to do so.

But he left enough unanswered questions that no-one can seriously believe it is in the national interest to let the story lie.  

People are only too well aware that the Israelis have "form" when it comes to New Zealand - diplomatic relations have only recently returned to normal after Mossad agents were caught stealing identities to obtain New Zealand passports.

The facts Key was prepared to confirm include:

The Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called him four times on the day of the earthquake - though Key says not all of those calls got through to him. If nothing else, given what he had on his plate that day - potentially hundreds dead, a city in turmoil - that seems extraordinarily unthinking on the part of the Israeli prime minister, unless he had something urgent to impart.

Key has also confirmed that one of the Israelis had multiple passports on him, but says he can't say how many because he doesn't know. Key then went on to confirm an incident in the Red Zone but says he won't go into detail. However, he did confirm he was aware that three Israeli's had fled the quake zone, leaving a dead comrade behind in their crushed van.

Key also made another point (repeatedly): that there is no evidence New Zealand passports were used improperly.

This could mean several things: that there is an innocent explanation; that the passports were for nationalities other than New Zealand; or that the evidence had been removed before New Zealand authorities could ascertain what was going on.

Since Key says he doesn't know how many passports were involved that seems like a distinct possibility.

But what Key can't or won't offer assurances on is what the Israelis were up to. His answers to date only fuel the perception that they were engaged in clandestine activity.

Call it a conspiracy theory, but the fact that the US-New Zealand partnership forum was underway in Christchurch at the time is reason for further speculation. It brought together a number of high ranking US officials including current and former assistant secretaries of state (the head of US homeland security, Janet Napolitano, was supposed to attend but pulled out late).

In the absence of reasonable explanations, that is as good a theory as any. Expect more outlandish conspiracy theories to emerge if Key insists on his refusal to detail the facts.

At the moment, the huge blanks in Key's response will only allow the impression to take root that maintaining good relations with Israel is what passes for the Government's "national interest" test.

It is difficult to see how that could possibly override leaving the country in the dark on legitimate questions of national security.

More questions will be put to Key later today in the United States, where myself, for Fairfax, and other journalists have been following his official delegation on a day-trip to San Jose where he has spent most of the day touring Google and Facebook.

Key was blindsided by the allegations early mid-morning American time, which was when newspapers hit the streets in New Zealand. He gave his stand-up from inside Facebook headquarters.

Earlier, Key's office appeared to be the view that Key would follow his long-standing convention of not commenting on security matters. But they clearly recognised that some questions would have to be answered.