Australia agog with tale of the playboy 'diplomat' and a minister's daughter

Was he a spy who courted women in high places to gain access to top-secret intelligence, or a would-be Casanova who pestered his way around the Canberra social circuit? And was it Amir Laty's friendship with a senior Australian minister's daughter that prompted the expulsion of this Israeli diplomat and notorious party animal?

Mr Laty left Australia late last year, 18 months into his posting, but the news was hushed up until last week. Both Australia and Israel have refused to discuss the reasons for his abrupt departure, fuelling lurid media reports linking him with high-level espionage and painting him as a male Mata Hari. Most intriguingly, it has emerged that he was a friend of Caitlin Ruddock, whose father, Philip, is the Australian Attorney General. Indeed, the young and single Mr Laty was invited to the Ruddock household for Christmas lunch, but found himself unable to attend as a result of moves to expel him.

The story, featuring headlines such as "The spy and the minister's daughter" and "The strange case of the disappearing diplomat", has Australians agog.

The government dismisses the friendship with Ms Ruddock as irrelevant, but the affair - which has blown up on the eve of a visit by Moshe Katsav, the first Israeli President to come to Australia for 18 years - is causing it severe embarrassment.

To make matters worse, it has been confirmed that the man appointed to replace Mr Laty was embroiled in a child sex scandal in Brazil five years ago. Aryeh Scher, who was allegedly photographed in the nude with young girls, has been forced to withdraw his candidacy.

Mr Laty, in his early 30s, was a second secretary, with responsibility for consular matters in Australia and New Zealand. He lived in a fashionable Canberra suburb and was a well-known bar-hopper, favouring venues patronised by journalists, political aides and civil servants. One acquaintance, it's true, described him as "a bit of a dork". And the Sydney Morning Herald reported that some women were "unnerved" by his behaviour. One woman told The Daily Telegraph that he pursued her relentlessly, telephoning her for a month and offering her gifts.

But government sources have hinted at darker motives behind his alleged womanising. Mr Laty is said to have cultivated liaisons with women in the Defence Department and the Department of Prime Minister and cabinet. The implication is that he was using the "honey-pot" method, feigning a love interest in the hope of picking up classified information that the US and Britain share with Australia.

There have also been suggestions of links with a spy scandal that led to two alleged Mossad agents, Uriel Kelman and Eli Cara, being jailed in New Zealand last year for passport fraud. Mr Laty visited the pair, who served three months before being deported. Relations between New Zealand and Israel remain strained, and the Prime Minister, Helen Clark, has refused to allow Mr Katsav to visit.

Israel was reportedly ordered to recall Mr Laty or have him declared persona non grata. He has blamed his friendship with Ms Ruddock, a 26-year-old accountancy lecturer, for the expulsion. The pair met while they were studying together in Beijing six years ago. Opposition politicians who demanded an explanation for the departure were told to consult the domestic spy agency, ASIO. Mr Ruddock, a former Immigration minister, has responsibility for ASIO.

His other daughter, Kirsty, created a stir in 2002 when she publicly denounced his hardline policy on asylum-seekers.

Pressed about the reason why Mr Laty left, Mr Ruddock gave an answer reminiscent of Monty Python's "Dead Parrot" sketch. He said: "Somebody has left Australia. Diplomats come and go. He has left Australia. He departed Australia."

The Australian government claims that relations with Israel remain warm and cordial.

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