WASHINGTON, Sept. 24 (JTA) — Boarding a domestic flight in the United States could soon be as tough as boarding a flight to Israel on El Al Airlines.
But while Israel has often been mentioned as the model for domestic security ever since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, transforming America into a security-conscious land like Israel may not be so easy.
Whether traveling by air or walking into a movie theater, Israelis are accustomed to their bags being checked by professional security personnel. Ordinary civilians are on the alert for suspicious packages.
Yonah Alexander, an Israeli and professor of terrorism studies in the United States, said the United States used to view terrorism as a nuisance, and something that would go away.
“Now it seems that the super power of the United States and the international community is looking at Israel’s experiment as an experiment that worked most of the time,” said Alexander, director of the International Center for Terrorism Studies at the Potomac Institute in suburban Washington.
He said Americans will need to take the mundane security steps that Israel has had for years, such as frequent checks for identification, and bag and purse searches.
But he said the United States’ size and open-door policy toward immigrants will make the security procedures more complex than Israel’s methods.
And he noted that Israel, which has experienced its own share of terrorist assaults, knows its enemies and their tactics, in contrast to the situation in the current war on terrorism being waged by the United States.
“You cannot take the Israeli model and put it on America, it’s not going to fit,” Alexander said. “You have to fit the pieces of the puzzle.”
Still, U.S. officials are already looking at El Al’s security procedures. The Israeli airline is said to have one of the most expansive security checklists and has enacted many features to ensure passenger safety.
“Everyone knows, if you’ve flown on El Al, you go through a 45-minute interview,” Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) said in a hearing last week on federal aviation security. “And there’s a separation of different folks, based on the various ways in which they do their screening.
“Needless to say, it’s inconvenient to business, and that’s one of the reasons why it hasn’t happened,” Kerry said. “But I think Americans want to know they can get on a plane and be safe, and I know that there are adequate numbers of proposals already made to empower us to be able to make that guarantee to them, and we need to just embrace it and make it happen here soon.”
Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, said he believes the El Al crew members are better trained than their American counterparts and that a skilled staff is a requirement for keeping the airplanes safe.
“It’s having trained people simply interrogating passengers until they are satisfied,” Indyk said. “It’s a very thorough process.”
The airline is also believed to employ armed marshals on its planes and lock the cockpit so that passengers cannot hijack it.
An El Al spokeswoman said the airline would not discuss its security features.
Some terrorism experts have their doubts about U.S. airlines emulating El Al.
“El Al has only 20 aircraft and loses $30 million a year,” L. Paul Bremer, a former chair of the U.S. National Commission on Terrorism, said last Friday at a terrorism conference sponsored by the U.S. Institute for Peace.
“It’s not a good model.”
Indyk said that if the El Al model is utilized in the United States, major civil liberties questions will arise.
Israel has always treated Arabs with more scrutiny than Israelis and American Jews, because historically they have posed the largest threat.
“It gets very much into the question of racial profiling,” Indyk said. “The trade off between security and civil rights is going to be a difficult one to manage.”
He said Israel has a lot it can teach the United States about other homeland defense matters, including border control.
“Israel has experience in controlling its borders, particularly at the crossing points,” he said. “The United States has a very large population and very long borders and controlling those borders is going to be a real challenge.”
He also said the Israeli system of giving civilians a security detail in crisis situations could be duplicated in the United States, as could the way Israelis work to break up terrorism cells in their own land.
But he noted that Israel’s security situation is unique, and it is not in America’s best interest to emulate all of their security features.
“Israel faces a highly different threat,” Indyk said. “There is not a potentially hostile population on America’s borders that present an immediate challenge to deal with.”