No country could possibly be more obsessed about its image abroad than is Israel. Understandably, Israelis want to be liked and where appropriate, admired.
But in recent years, especially since Operation Cast Lead – the poorly-planned and badly-executed assault on the Gaza Strip that began December 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.” In actual fact, however, the real solution is a change in policy and attitude toward the international news media and especially toward the foreign correspondents based in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
This country has the third-biggest international press corps in the world. Its size is exceeded only by the number of colleagues who file from Washington, DC, and alternately Moscow or Beijing.
But the goodwill and respect enjoyed by the journalists who covered the country during its War of Independence 62 years ago and for at least two decades thereafter has been replaced by disdain and disrespect.
THE TROUBLE starts at Ben-Gurion Airport. Regardless of whether they are returning from home leave or an assignment abroad or are arriving for the first time, bona fide and in many cases veteran correspondents encounter poker-faced policemen and women 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 – or the validity of the Government Press Office accreditation card presented as proof of the bearer’s calling – the usual follow-up is a coldly enunciated order to “stand over there and wait for the policeman who will escort you.” 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 here for one year, after which the visa must be renewed annually for a maximum of five years.
The Arab states, most which curry favor and sympathy from the international news media – and get it too – 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 passport clearance and make sure the new arrival’s 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 treatment of the international press corps is the limitation on access to governmental facilities and above all, the blatant preference given to 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 police are given separate briefings meant only for these institutions’ respective afficionados. The frustrated foreign correspondents get the news secondhand from the local TV or radio and sometimes from the next day’s newspapers.
The IDF’s’ data usually reaches the international news media’s representative three or four hours after it is on the air locally in Hebrew.
Government-sponsored news conferences to which foreign correspondents are invited have become a rarity. The IDF 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 US 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 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 TV bureaus and that they simply pass on the “inside stories” doled out to them to their covert employers.
In today’s world, news often is worth a lot of money. Or as one of my local colleagues once 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 officialdom to convey its messages to the outside world is through the professional men and women who were sent here to receive it and not to bypass them in favor of embassies and consulates overseas.The writer reports from Israel for
CBS Radio. He has been based here since 1966, originally for The
Chicago Daily News and then for The Chicago Sun-Times. In 1980, he
established CNN’s bureau in Jerusalem and headed it until 1985. He is a
former chairman of the Foreign Press Association and taught journalism
at Tel Aviv and Bar-Ilan universities. In the mid-1990s, he served as
The Jerusalem Post’s diplomatic and political correspondent.