Far-reaching changes have been promised at the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) to prevent a repeat of the incident where the deputy British ambassador was strip-searched by security officers on her way to a pre-arranged meeting at the PMO last month.
The incident incensed not only diplomats at the British embassy in Tel Aviv. Israeli Foreign Ministry officials, who issued a formal apology following the incident, are said to be livid that their ongoing efforts to strengthen bilateral ties could be undermined by what they regard as overly rigorous and crudely handled security checks on diplomats. One diplomatic source suggested the Foreign Ministry leaked the story to the media in an effort to pressure the PMO into making sweeping changes to security procedures following the incident.
British Deputy Head of Mission and Consul General Janet Rogan was subjected to what the British embassy called an "intrusive security check" while accompanying a delegation of British treasury officials to a meeting with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's chief of staff, Yoram Turbowicz, and senior policy advisor, Shalom Turgeman. PMO spokeswoman Miri Eisin said the inquiry into the incident had resulted in changes to procedures to accommodate the "special status of diplomats" when entering the PMO. A PMO insider told Anglo File these changes would be "drastic." Rogan's complaint also resulted in a formal apology from the PMO for the "indignity" of the incident.
While no one at the Foreign Ministry disputes the gravity of the task facing the Shin Bet security service at the PMO, ministry officials are frustrated that junior officers appear not to understand the importance of treating foreign diplomats sensitively or appreciate the system of diplomatic rankings. "They didn't understand, or even know, that such a senior diplomat - who serves as charge d'affaires - should not be physically checked at all," said one ministry source.
The incident, considered particularly embarrassing for Israel due to its wide coverage in the British and American press, did not surprise seasoned Israeli diplomats. One former Israeli ambassador described incidents during his tenure at the Foreign Ministry involving diplomats and foreign officials at the highest levels who were invited to Israel on official missions and yet endured lengthy security checks here that left them "furious."
"We always complained and it never made any difference," said the former ambassador, adding that even the intervention of senior politicians on the issue appeared ineffectual. He referred to the wife of a former European premier who possessed a diplomatic passport and vowed never to set foot again in Israel after her "humiliating" interrogation before flying out of Ben-Gurion airport despite an otherwise thrilling visit here. That episode reached the ears of then prime minister Yitzhak Rabin who ordered his staff to remedy the system. "Nothing came of it. Do you really think the prime minister can work against habits [entrenched] in this system? You have to go right to the top of the security system," added the former ambassador. "I really don't know why these things happen when everything is coordinated in advance. It's astonishing. It must be someone very stupid at a low level."
Others are reluctant to blame underlings in the security system. "It's too easy to put the blame on the shoulders of young men. Those who invite the guests are responsible for preventing these kinds of problems," said one Foreign Ministry source. But with reports circulating that the prime minister has on occasion left his office to greet high-ranking guests and ease their entry through security, this solution seems far from satisfactory.
No one familiar with the topic views the current situation or the Rogan incident as a sign of deterioration in the treatment of VIPs in Israel, but rather an indication of inherent flaws in the implementation of Israel's security systems.
A cursory survey of foreign embassies conducted this week by Anglo File found several missions whose staff has experienced at most only minor problems while passing through security. One European diplomat related that his foreign minister's visit to the PMO last year went "totally smoothly." The Czech embassy stated its staff had experienced almost no security-related problems. "If there are some difficulties we understand the security reasons are more important than small problems," said press attache Robert Rehak. One senior European diplomat pointed out that while diplomats working from his embassy in Tel Aviv experienced only minor problems, those based in his country's consulate in Jerusalem who make frequent trips to Gaza are subject to much closer scrutiny when inside Israel.
A few embassies had specific complaints when contacted by Anglo File. One Asian diplomat recalled an embassy staffer who, despite carrying official documents, was questioned by security officers at Ben-Gurion airport for so long that he missed his plane. He also mentioned that breakdowns in the system that provides special permits for diplomats to meet guests at the airport have resulted in "embarrassing" starts to visits to Israel.
All the embassies contacted view Rogan's case as unusual and grave, and several diplomats referred to the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which grants diplomats and their families a range of privileges and immunities (subject to the host country's laws and regulations) and compels the host country to treat diplomats with "due respect" and prevent "any attack on his person, freedom or dignity." The convention also declares the personal baggage of a diplomat exempt from inspection barring exceptional circumstances.
"There's a general feeling that some people who work on the ground here just don't know the rules. It's an annoyance in your work," said one diplomat.
Foreign Ministry Chief of Protocol Yitzhak Eldan said there have been significantly less problems for diplomats and other VIPs at the airport since two ministry staffers were assigned to a special bureau there several years ago. He added that the Vienna Convention was formulated in a different era when security threats took a different form.
A couple of foreign diplomats mentioned that security checks on diplomats in their own countries have also caused friction in recent years. "It's not just an Israeli problem, it's a global problem. Balancing the needs of security and protocol are a continuing challenge in our daily work," said one diplomatic source.
Another foreign diplomat disagrees. "The rest of the world manages to conduct its security checks without treating diplomats and others the way Israel does. Why can't Israel get a handle on it? Israel's image abroad is so poor anyway and it simply plays right into that."
Janet Rogan was unwilling to comment but is said to be have been furious about the indignity caused by both the incident and its widespread coverage. The British embassy issued a statement saying the apology issued by the PMO has been accepted and the matter is regarded as closed.
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