Israel Government Press Office Director Danny Seaman is asking for security checks on all journalists -- whether or not they work for bona fide news agencies. For that security check request, some news agencies are demanding that Seaman be removed from office.
This past Tuesday, I covered the special session of the Knesset Law Committee where left-wing Knesset member Roman Bronfman filed a formal motion against Seaman's demand for a security check of journalists. Bronfman, who emigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union, claimed that "only in totalitarian regimes like Syria, North Korea and Iran do governments require security checks of journalists."
When I applied for press credentials to cover public events in Washington, D.C., (at the U.S. State and Defense Departments, not the White House), I indeed got my press pass - but not before undergoing a security check with the Washington, D.C., District Police and the FBI.
It is obvious what Bronfman's outrage is about: holding Israel up to a higher moral and democratic standard among nations, especially among its enemies.
Israel has traditonally been extra "inclusionary" in allowing press operations.
Possession of an Israeli government press card enables the holder of that card to cover any and every sensitive security spot in Israel. For years, hundreds of Palestinian Arab journalists working alongside foreign news agencies have been issued Israeli government press cards, giving them full intelligence access to the entire country.
The Israeli government rarely did any background security checks before issuing the Israel Government press cards. The reasoning: the news agencies employing their stringers were fully responsible for them.
More than twenty years ago, the late Morton Dolinsky, then the director of the Israel Government Press Office, remarked with great irony that he, an old-time Israeli conservative and Menachem Begin appointee, had actually issued an Israeli press card for Ramonda Tawill, who would soon become Yasser Arafat's mother-in-law.
Tawill received that card as the head of an agency that provided the foreign press with the "PLO point of view."
The methodology was to provide qualified freelance reporters, or "stringers," to work with all the major visiting media in Israel, to work as photographers, cameramen, translators and "fixers" - the people who would make the essential arrangements for the foreign press. The procedure was simple.
A visiting newsperson would come to the Beit Agron Press Center and get Israel Government Press Office (GPO) press credentials for himself and for the Arab stringer who was accompanying him -- even though it was an open secret that the Arab stringer was also reporting back to a media agency that was set up by the PLO.
With the outbreak of the hostilities in 1987-1988, the Arab press services for the journalists at Beit Agron grew and expanded. As many as five Arab media services were operating in East Jerusalem to provide hundreds of visiting journalists with "fixers." And the Arab media professionals also
provided Israeli journalists with these same expanded same services.
By 1990, recognizing a media opportunity when he saw one, Arafat appointed a prominent Arab journalist to coordinate the work of the more than 100 Arab stringers who were then working with the foreign press, all of whom held valid GPO cards, many of whom reported back both to the journalists who employed them and to Arafat's staffers.
With the creation of the Palestine National Authority (PNA), one of Arafat's closest advisors who later became a PNA cabinet minister was appointed to be the head of one of the best organized and most professional Palestinian Arab media outlets that continues to provide stringers and foreign press to this day.
Over the years, I can attest from personal and professional experience that not all of the Arab stringers showed loyalty to Arafat. Indeed, it was Palestinian Arab journalists who helped uncovered Arafat's secret bank accounts. It was Palestinian Arab journalists who uncovered countless instances of torture, imprisonment and execution of Palestinian dissidents against Arafat. It was Palestinian Arab journalists who filmed the Palestinian Arab Security Services training children for combat. All this took courage, with Arafat's representatives "breathing down their backs."
At the same time, one Arab stringer from Agence France-Presse arrested in Jenin was a wanted terrorist.
Thus, the real concern today is that it just might be that some local stringers might not pass "the test," especially the ones who have been assigned by Arafat to work for the foreign press.
A tragedy is clearly hovering in the Israeli air.
And, by the way, Romanda Tawill's press pass has expired. So the question now remains: will Danny Seaman soon be forced to renew the press credentials for Arafat's mother-in-law?