Israel, unwisely, gives foreign correspondents second-class status
JERUSALEM — No country could possibly be more obsessed about its image abroad than Israel.
Understandably, the Israelis want to be liked and, where appropriate, admired.
But in recent years, especially since Operation Cast Lead — the poorly planned, badly executed assault on the Gaza Strip that began Dec. 27, 2008 — they have been the butt of international criticism, much of it unwarranted.
The traditional panacea here for this problem is termed hasbara, an untranslatable Hebrew word that literally means “explanation,” but implies “rationale” or “elaboration.”
Actually, the real solution is a change in policy and attitude toward the international news media, especially the foreign correspondents based in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
Israel has the third largest international press corps in the world, exceeded in size only the number by those in Washington, Moscow or Beijing.
But the good will and respect enjoyed by the journalists who covered Israel during its War of Independence 62 years ago and at least two decades thereafter has been replaced by disdain and disrespect.
The trouble starts at Ben Gurion International Airport. Regardless of whether they are returning from home leave or an assignment abroad or are arriving for the first time, veteran correspondents encounter poker-faced security officers who ask, menacingly, “Why have you come to this country?”
Regardless of the passport presented by the incoming journalist or the status the country that issued it may have in the eyes of the border control personnel, the usual follow-up is a coldly enunciated order to “stand over there.”
This is the standard prelude to an unpredictable interrogation by Interior Ministry officials who maintain a 24/7 presence in the airport terminal.
In most cases, though not all, admission is granted. But by then, there is a permanent residue of resentment, if not hostility, on the journalist’s part. The “B-1” visa, which is issued to foreign correspondents, is identical to the one granted to African, Chinese, Thai and European manual laborers and Filipino caregivers.
It allows them to work in Israel for one year after which the visa must be renewed annually for a maximum of five years.
The Arab states, most of which curry favor and sympathy from the international news media, adhere to their cultural tradition of hospitality toward strangers in their midst.
After landing at Cairo Airport, for example, correspondents are directed to a special booth manned by government personnel who take care of their passport clearance and make sure the new arrivals’ baggage gets through customs without delay.
Syrian border control officials act as if their primary purpose is to welcome newcomers and their Jordanian counterparts are even more gracious. Incredible as it may seem, their counterparts in the former Soviet Union and East Germany were more cordial than are the Israelis today.
A much more serious defect in the Israeli treatment of the international press corps is the limitation on access to governmental facilities and above all, the blatant preference given the local news media in the dissemination of newsworthy information. The exclusive groups of Israeli journalists who have special accreditation to the Prime Minister’s Office, Foreign and Defense Ministries and national police are given separate briefings meant only for these institutions’ respective aficionados. The frustrated foreign correspondents get the news second-hand from the local television or radio and sometimes from the next day’s newspapers.
The Israel Defense Forces’ data usually reaches the international news media’s representatives three to four hours after it is aired locally in Hebrew.
Government-sponsored news conferences, to which foreign correspondents are invited, have become a rarity. Israel’s chief military spokesman has not met with foreign journalists since he took office more than three years ago.
The only change on the horizon is the possibility that Israel may take a cue from the U.S. State Department and grant foreign correspondents a special “I” visa, which requires evidence that the bearer is employed by a recognized news organization abroad. However, it is too soon to say whether this will be an enhancement.
A truly meaningful improvement will occur when Israel’s official media controllers and hasbara specialists face the fact that many of their much-coddled local journalists are on the payrolls of the various foreign news agencies, newspaper and television bureaus and simply pass on the inside stories doled out to them to their covert employers.
News is often worth a lot of money. Or as one of my local colleagues put it, “What I make from my Hebrew newspaper is peanuts compared to what I get from my foreign clients.”
What all of the above boils down to is this: The best way for Israeli officials to convey their messages to the outside world is to go through the professional men and women who were sent here to receive it — not to bypass them.
(Jay Bushinsky, an Israel-based political columnist, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)