Less admired than muddied combat soldiers or smooth intelligence operatives, the Israeli public tends to imagine diplomats as spoiled suits who do nothing but conduct polite conversations at fancy cocktail receptions.
But forget champagne; these days the Foreign Ministry doesn’t even have money for coffee.
That, at least, is what the ministry’s Workers Union claims. Lamenting poor pay and an ever-shrinking budget, the union has once again ceased providing basic consular services and is threatening to disrupt Israel’s diplomacy, including a planned trip to Tokyo by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in protest of the ongoing erosion of their professional home.
Perhaps more importantly, the diplomats’ current labor sanctions aim to hurt Israel’s economy by sabotaging million-dollar arms deals and jeopardizing lucrative flight routes, according to the Workers Union.
A ‘new low’ for the Foreign Ministry
There are two separate issues plaguing Israel’s foreign policy establishment — the salaries of diplomats and the ministry’s low budget — which politicians and analysts say are both the result of a deliberate policy by the prime minister.
“Netanyahu has systematically weakened the Ministry of Foreign Affairs,” Blue and White co-leader Yair Lapid, a former finance minister under Netanyahu, told The Times of Israel this week. “He has taken away its budgets, undermined its staff and divided its responsibilities to keep his political partners quiet. Israel’s foreign relations and our national security are suffering as a result.”
During the last election campaign, Netanyahu underlined his foreign policy achievements, but the Foreign Ministry, for which he was responsible for the last four years, has reached a “new low,” agreed Nimrod Goren, who heads Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies.
“This is a continuation of a calculated process aimed at weakening the ministry and decentralizing its powers, which harms Israel’s ability to achieve political goals and to improve international relations,” Goren charged. “This crisis is not only financial, and is also reflected in preventing the Foreign Ministry from exerting influence on the core issues of Israeli statesmanship.”
The diplomats, too, feel that their ministry is being undermined — nay, robbed of any relevance — with key competences given to other players in the government. The really important foreign policy issues, they feel, are handled by the Prime Minister’s Office, the National Security Council, or the Mossad intelligence agency.
To just give one example: last month, Mossad chief Yossi Cohen publicly spoke about Israel establishing “formal relations” with Oman. The Foreign Ministry refused to comment on the matter, with diplomats acknowledging in private conversations that they are not involved in the issue.
Even the smaller issues the Foreign Ministry used to deal with have been reallocated: the Strategic Affairs Ministry deals with the anti-Israel boycott movement, the Diaspora Affairs Ministry fights anti-Semitism and issues such as Red Sea-Dead Sea Project, a water management effort with Jordan, are advanced by the Regional Cooperation Ministry.
No money for coffee, ink, flights
Still, the diplomat’s most important struggle is about money — both in terms of wages and the Foreign Ministry’s budget.
Over the last 20 years, the budgets of all ministries have doubled, only that of the Foreign Ministry has been cut, and now stands at a paltry NIS 1.3 billion ($367 million) per annum, according to Hanan Goder, Israel’s non-resident ambassador to South Sudan and a member of the ministry’s Workers Union.
“Lately, we don’t have budgets for activities. All we have money for is to pay rent and salaries, and sometimes electricity bills. But today we don’t have money to buy new ink for our printers. There is no money for coffee. There is no money for trips,” he told The Times of Israel in an interview this week.
I am the ambassador to South Sudan. I don’t have money to fly to South Sudan
Israel’s ambassador to Kenya is also responsible for four other countries in the region, but is unable to travel there for lack of funds, Goder said.
“Our envoy to Helsinki cannot buy a ticket for 60 euros to make the 20-minute trip to Tallinn, the Estonian capital, to express solidarity with the Jewish community there [after its cemetery was vandalized there last month].
“I am the ambassador to South Sudan. I don’t have money to fly to South Sudan,” he lamented.
Needless to say, Israeli diplomats recently had to freeze all cultural activities, such as film festivals and tours for foreign journalists; Mashav, the ministry’s development aid agency, has ceased giving out grants; and so on.
More importantly, Israel has stopped paying membership dues to several international organizations, such as the European Council, the Union for the Mediterranean, or the United Nations Development Program, known as UNDP.
“This is amazing. You are talking about the State of Israel — a member of the OECD, with one of the highest GDPs in the world, the start-up nation. We reached the moon, but we cannot pay our dues to all these organizations,” Goder said.
For now, Israel is not at risk of being kicked out of these organizations, as they allow countries to amass arrears for several years.
“But this is an embarrassment. It’s grave,” Goder thundered.
‘We will do anything to make noise’
Israeli diplomats have long complained about low wages and poor working conditions. Once every few years they enact labor sanctions, which are usually followed by a general strike — with mixed results. In January 2011, they thwarted a planned visit to Israel by then-Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, but otherwise successes have been rare for the Foreign Ministry’s Workers Union.
Three years later, after weeks of increased labor sanctions, which included the cessation of any contacts with foreign governments and the suspension of all consular services to Israelis abroad, they shut down the ministry’s headquarters in Jerusalem and 103 embassies and consulates worldwide for the first time in Israel’s history.
In November 2014, the Histadrut labor union representatives signed a comprehensive agreement with Finance Ministry officials to increase pay for Israeli diplomats, ostensibly ending the Workers Union’s long struggle.
But the agreement has still not been fully implemented, Goder complained this week.
“As a former diplomat, it’s tearing up my heart to see how derisively the State of Israel treats the Foreign Ministry,” said Nadav Tamir, who served as foreign policy adviser to president Shimon Peres. “The Foreign Ministry has quality personnel that should be cultivated; the ongoing harm done to it causes strategic harm to the State of Israel.”
Netanyahu wants to do right by the diplomats, but he simply has not pushed hard enough for the 2014 agreement to be fully implemented, Goder said diplomatically (noting that as a civil servant he must refrain from political statements, he refused in the interview to state who he blames for the Foreign Ministry’s lamentable situation).
A few days ago, the Workers Union has, for the umpteenth time, started implementing labor sanctions.
“We will do anything that will make noise,” Goder vowed. Israeli missions in China, Turkey, India and other places no longer issue visas to potential visitors, which has already obstructed at least one high-profile business delegation.
“This is very effective, very harmful. The Chinese are going to cut down their flights to Israel because of that,” Goder said. “We work for Israel’s economy, but we know where to exert influence.”
The Foreign Ministry has also stopped signing licenses for arms exports. For sensitive security deals, the signature of a ministry official is required by law.
“Millions of dollars are at risk,” according to Goder.
Israeli diplomats are also currently not providing any assistance to incoming or outgoing delegations. Whether foreign dignitaries want to visit the Jewish state or Israeli officials plan to go abroad, they will have to do without the help of the Foreign Ministry (with the exception of President Reuven Rivlin, who is currently in South Korea, and who, for unexplained reasons, was excluded from the sanctions).
Netanyahu, by contrast, is one of the key targets of the sanctions, Goder said.
“We will not cooperate, we will not sit in discussions, we will not do anything to help his upcoming visits,” he said, noting that Netanyahu’s planned trip to Japan later this month is currently “on hold.”
But if recent history is any indication, Netanyahu, unfazed by the diplomats’ protests, will go ahead with his travel plans, managing, if need be, without the Foreign Ministry’s assistance.
Even Foreign Minister Israel Katz, the person perhaps most expected to back the diplomats’ demands, appears not to be letting the labor sanctions get in the way of business.
On Monday evening, he took off for an official visit to Washington, DC, where he is scheduled to meet his American counterpart, Mike Pompeo, and senior US lawmakers.