Irked over ‘strike-breaking,’ diplomats quit working with IDF, Shin Bet

Irked over ‘strike-breaking,’ diplomats quit working with IDF, Shin Bet

Foreign Ministry workers widen labor sanctions after security officials help plan prime minister's trip to Poland

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses Israel's ambassadors at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem on Thursday, January 03 (photo credit: Moshe Milner/GPO/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses Israel's ambassadors at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem on Thursday, January 03 (photo credit: Moshe Milner/GPO/Flash90)

The Foreign Ministry’s Workers’ Union on Thursday instructed ministry personnel to cease all cooperation with the Israel Defense Forces and the Shin Bet security service, escalating labor sanctions that have already derailed visits abroad by Israeli leaders.

“Starting as of now, contacts with the Shin Bet and the IDF are to be cut in all areas of cooperation. In case of doubt, this directive is to be interpreted stringently,” the Workers’ Union said in a message sent out to all Israeli diplomats stationed in Israel and in foreign missions around the globe.

The union, which is agitating for better working conditions and protesting the outsourcing of key positions to other ministries, accused the army and the Shin Bet of aiding Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to break their current strike by helping his office organize an upcoming trip to Poland. According to the diplomats, the Prime Minister’s Office has recruited security officials and other professionals outside the foreign service to assist in the “technical coordination” for the visit.

On June 12, Netanyahu, who is acting foreign minister, Deputy Foreign Minister Ze’ev Elkin and five cabinet ministers are planning to head to Warsaw for consultations with their Polish counterparts. The next day, the Israeli delegation will fly to Krakow to take part in the reopening of an exhibition in the so-called Block 27 of the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum.

Foreign Ministry sources told Haaretz that a Shin Bet official filled the void left by striking Israeli diplomats in Warsaw and reserved hotel rooms for ministers and their entourage and even journalists.

“If the prime minister’s request is indeed granted, and the [the IDF and Shin Bet] work on the visit, the Foreign Ministry’s authority will be harmed,” the union said in a statement. “It is inconceivable that the bodies responsible for the citizens’ security help violate the rights of Foreign Ministry employees.”

Earlier this week, the Worker’s Union slammed Netanyahu in unusually harsh words for allegedly trying to cross the picket line.

“The prime minister is trampling on the Foreign Ministry employees,” the union said in a statement. “It seems the prime minister prefers to threaten us with force and to turn the army into a tool against civilians instead of engaging in fact-based negotiating that will resolve the conflict… This is improper, unacceptable conduct.”

The Prime Minister’s Office did not respond to a request for comment.

Netanyahu, the IDF and the Shin Bet are not the only targets of the foreign ministry workers. According to Haaretz, the union scolded Israel’s ambassador in France, Yossi Gal, for crossing the picket line as well, because he helped organize Finance Minister Yair Lapid’s visit to Paris last week. “We view with great gravity this behavior, which harms to the Foreign Ministry and its workers. We expect that this behavior will not repeat itself,” they wrote to him. Gal responded that the embassy did not assist in arranging the visit but that it was done by a Finance Ministry official stationed at the embassy in Paris and that he did not force any diplomat to attend any meeting.

A bitter labor dispute between Israeli diplomats and the Finance Ministry has been waging for months, and since April the workers’ union has been implementing sanctions aimed at disrupting Israeli officials’ visits abroad. For trips considered of major importance, such as Netanyahu’s May visit to China, the diplomats made exceptions, but this week they announced they would not help organize the prime minister’s planned two-day stopover in Poland.

The union declared a labor dispute back in February and drastically intensified sanctions two months later by asking staff to stop sending emails and diplomatic cables along with additional measures to disrupt the functioning of the country’s foreign policy apparatus. Several ministers and other top officials have already been forced to cancel travel plans because ministry staff refused to issue them diplomatic passports.

“The situation is such that one in three young diplomats in the ministry quits because they can’t make ends meet,” the head of the workers’ union, Yair Frommer, told The Times of Israel, describing what he says is the primary motivation for the potential strike.

Another reason relates to the makeup of the new government. There is no foreign minister currently, with Netanyahu acting as minister and reserving the post for the possible return of former foreign minister Avigdor Liberman if he beats fraud and breach of trust charges.

Diplomats are also incensed over the tasking of Justice Minister Tzipi Livni with peace negotiations with the Palestinians, a natural Foreign Ministry preserve.

A new International Relations Ministry, headed by Yuval Steinitz, also deeply undermine the Foreign Ministry’s work, workers claim, and they have boycotted the new office as part of the labor sanctions.

The measures currently in place have not made major headlines in Israel because their effects are not visible outside the ministry, and foreign visits have been going on more or less as usual.

However, they are severely affecting the work done at the ministry. Importantly, the fact that diplomats aren’t supposed to engage in any professional written correspondence significantly hampers the management of the country’s international relations.

According to the directives of the workers’ union, officials should also not send work-related emails, but one ministry official stationed in Jerusalem said that in preparation for foreign visits, the staff is forced to write emails.

Besides refusing to issue diplomatic passports to people who do not work for the Foreign Ministry, employees have also halted providing services to new political appointees within Israel’s diplomatic service. The workers’ union also instructed ministry employees to disregard the usual dress code and come to work in jeans and T-shirts.

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