By HERB KEINON
El Al may cancel its three weekly flights to Johannesburg by mid-January if a dispute with the South African government over the status of the Israeli security detail in the airport there is not solved by then.
Foreign Ministry officials said that quiet talks are taking place with South African officials to solve what has turned into a diplomatic issue over whether Israeli security guards protecting EL AL flights can carry diplomatic passports granting them diplomatic immunity from possible criminal proceedings stemming from their work. For instance, there is concern that if customers take issue with having their bags checked, or being pulled aside for extensive searches, they could file suit, unless the security guard has this diplomatic immunity.
The same issue held up the initiation of El Al and Arkia flights to three Russian cities this summer, an issue that was solved earlier this month when the Russians agreed to the diplomatic passport arrangement.
EL Al spokesman Ran Rahav issued a statement saying that the issue with the South African authorities is being dealt with by the Foreign Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office. “El AL hopes that the crisis with the South African government will be solved quickly. In the event that a solution is not found, El AL will have difficulty fulfilling the Israel Security Agency’s directives to that destination, and the significance of that is clear.”
The whole matter of EL AL security became an issue in August when a fired EL Al security official of 19 years appeared on the country’s leading television investigative program, Carte Blanche, and accused the airline of being a front for Israeli clandestine operations in the country, and alleged that the airline conducted lengthy baggage searches, issued threats and practiced racial profiling.
Carte Blanche 0producers sent a Muslim man with a hidden camera to the Johannesburg airport to meet a friend near the El Al check-in desk. He was thoroughly interrogated by men claiming to be airport security personnel.
The program caused a storm in the country, and the South African government demanded that the chief of El Al’s security, who had a diplomatic passport, leave the country by the end of the November. Now his job is being filled by people flying in on a weekly basis, an arrangement that is to expire by mid-January when the arrangement will either go back to what it was previously, or the airline will stop flying to the country.
The security procedures for El AL are set by Israel’s security services, and not the airline.