'This is our message to Lapid: Please surprise us'

Blasting obdurate Finance Ministry, diplomats launch fight for better conditions

Foreign Ministry workers disrupt committee meeting to demand new promotions policy, ask Lapid to take up their cause, warn embassies could be shut

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Foreign Ministry employees disrupt a meeting of the promotions committee as a committee member waits for them to leave, October 19, 2021 (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)
Foreign Ministry employees disrupt a meeting of the promotions committee as a committee member waits for them to leave, October 19, 2021 (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

Foreign Ministry employees embarked on an aggressive campaign for better compensation and benefits on Tuesday, disrupting a meeting of the promotion committee and posting signs at the entrance to Foreign Minister Yair Lapid’s office.

Their main demand was that the current promotion timetable be reconfigured by the Finance Ministry, giving employees better salaries for their work, which they described as regularly taking place late at night and on weekends.

“Mr. Minister,” read one sign posted in front of Lapid’s office, “Nice to meet you — I’ve been waiting ten years for the rank of minister.”

The promotion schedules are a major point of contention, with only one or two positions opening up each time for dozens of candidates at each rank.

“We’ve gotten to a point where someone is supposed to be promoted, and management tells him, ‘We simply can’t promote you.’ It’s not that it will take another month or two, it’s another ten years, 12 years, or it’ll never happen,” Yosi Levi Sfari, head of the Foreign Ministry workers union, told The Times of Israel.

Some 229 employees are eligible and waiting for promotion, said Levi Sfari, some for more than a decade. The average age of those who reach the rank of ambassador is 63, and even at that top grade, the base salary is only around NIS 14,500 a month ($4,500).

“You find yourself working 24/7, for a salary that is not appropriate for the scope of the work,” he lamented, laying the blame squarely on Finance Ministry staff.

Levi Sfari and the union called employees to the cafeteria at 11 a.m., where diplomats and clerks blew whistles and demanded that Lapid champion their cause against the Finance Ministry.

“We are happy there is a new minister… who comes and says all the right things,” said Yacov Livne, Israel’s recently recalled envoy to Poland, who now directs the ministry’s Euro-Asia Department, speaking through a bullhorn, “He knows what we do, he knows our contribution to the state, but we as workers do not feel that anything has changed. Quite the opposite.”

Foreign Ministry workers union head Yosi Levi Sfari addresses employees during a protest, October 19, 2021 (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

During the handover ceremony from his predecessor Gabi Askenazi in June, Lapid accused outgoing prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu of abandoning the diplomatic corps and leaving it in shambles. “In recent years Israel has abandoned its foreign service, abandoned the international arena. And then we woke up one morning to find that our international standing has been weakened,” Lapid told the assembled employees.

“Since then nothing has happened,” said Levi Sfari.

“This is our message to Foreign Minister Lapid: Please surprise us,” said Livne, before threatening more aggressive action. “Please don’t bring us once again to a place where we have to fight for our professional home and for Israeli diplomacy.

“If we have no choice, we will do it,” he continued, hinting at measures taken during a 2014 strike, when diplomats shut down the Foreign Ministry and all 103 embassies worldwide. Coincidently, Lapid was finance minister at the time.

Speaking to Yedioth Ahronoth, Histadrut labor union Jerusalem chief Danny Bonfil said explicitly, “If the situation is not solved, we will give instructions to shut down the embassies.”

A sign left in front of Foreign Minister Yair Lapid’s office protests delays in promotions, October 19 2021 (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

The 50-odd employees later moved their protest to the ministry’s situation room, where a meeting of the promotions committee was set to take place, headed by Foreign Ministry Director-General Alon Ushpiz.

The whistles and sirens forced the committee to move the meeting to another room.

“It is no longer a given that any event in this building will take place,” pledged Livne.

Ministry spokesman Lior Haiat expressed the management’s high regard for the employees while questioning some of the union’s tactics.

“The director-general of the Foreign Ministry and the management of the ministry are full of appreciation for the dedication of the Foreign Ministry’s workers and are committed to every possible improvement in the working conditions, salary, and promotion of employees,” he said. “In the last two years, the number of promotions given  to employees has risen by 30%.”

Some 28 out of the 229 eligible employees were set to be promoted after Tuesday’s committee meeting, on top of 27 who were promoted in April.

Head of the Yesh Atid party Yair Lapid speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, on October 4, 2021. Photo by Oliiver Fitoussi/Flash90

“These numbers reflect the efforts of the management to improve the promotions, available positions, and roles in light of the very intensive work of the Foreign Ministry and of the challenges facing it,” Haiat continued.

“We are not sure that disrupting the work of the committee is the best way to help the employees.”

While the tone the union took toward Lapid was one of respectful disappointment, its members blasted the Finance Ministry, saying that its goal was “to continue harming employees of the Foreign Ministry.”

“This is a process that has been going on for years. And in the last three years it has gotten far worse,” said Levi Sfari. “It’s time that the individual responsible for our salaries in the Finance Ministry and our management recalculate the course of promotions.”

The Finance Ministry spokesman’s office refused to comment on the charges.

‘No one said stop’

“There is a radical lack of understanding [in the Finance Ministry] of what the meaning of relocation and living abroad is,” said Levi Sfari, describing a campaign by the Finance Ministry to strip Israeli diplomats working abroad of many of their benefits.

Recent changes include canceling periodic visits to Israel for single diplomats working abroad to enable them to maintain romantic relationships in Israel more easily, and forcing diplomats to fund up to 50% of their language courses to prepare for missions overseas.

Diplomats said they had to wait months for approval for the ministry to cover special education for their children. In the meantime, diplomats’ children sat at home.

“No one put a red light up in front of them and told them to stop,” Levi Sfari said. “Someone has to tell them, friends, you’ve lost your way.”

The erosion of benefits — especially for diplomats serving abroad — has caused diplomats to leave the foreign service, said Livne.

“The Finance Ministry continues to operate with us as if we were in the 1960s,” Livne charged, “as if Israel is some sad place and Europe is glitzy, and that the spouse’s career doesn’t exist.”

Yossi Levi Sfari. (Courtesy)

The Foreign Ministry is expected to receive significant budget increases in the coming year, but employees say that as of now, it will mean more work without an improvement in conditions.

“There’s nothing in it for the employees,” said Levi Sfari.

Diplomats stressed that their work has a direct influence on the daily lives of Israeli citizens, beyond the higher-profile diplomatic functions. They open up new markets to Israeli businesses, reduce the cost of living, provide consular services, help Israelis receive pensions from other countries, rescue Israelis stranded abroad and more.

“There is no foreign office in the world that takes care of its citizens like the Foreign Ministry does,” said Levi Sfari.

Foreign Ministry workers announced in 2019 that they would be stepping up protests after the government passed a sweeping NIS 1.2 billion ($333 million) spending cut. The budget cuts further strained the Foreign Ministry’s already tight budget, leading to downgraded services at Israeli embassies.

In May, a report by then-state comptroller Yosef Shapira found that some Israeli ambassadors and their staff were living in uninhabitable conditions while on posts abroad. Shapira’s report said that many of the 250 or so properties and staff residences under the Foreign Ministry’s charge were in a dilapidated state.

The report detailed complaints from Israel’s ambassador to Nigeria about the rats and lice in the official residence, and noted that the envoy to Brazil slept on a mattress on the floor.

Diplomats went on strike over wage and budget disputes in 2014 and again in 2016, saying the treasury had dragged its feet on implementing a previous compensation agreement.

“Generations of Israeli diplomats came and worked under the assumption that they serve the state, and that the state takes care of them,” said Livne. “Maybe that belief is naive now.”

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