Foreign Ministry workers declare major strike

Renewed labor dispute could jeopardize upcoming visits of British PM, pope; diplomats suspend consular services

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Foreign Ministry employees protest outside the offices of the Shin Bet security agency, in Tel Aviv, July 3, 2013. The sign reads: 'A lost diplomacy = an isolated Israel' (photo credit: Roni Schutzer/Flash90)
Foreign Ministry employees protest outside the offices of the Shin Bet security agency, in Tel Aviv, July 3, 2013. The sign reads: 'A lost diplomacy = an isolated Israel' (photo credit: Roni Schutzer/Flash90)

Workers at the Foreign Ministry initiated a harsh new round of labor sanctions Tuesday, potentially jeopardizing visits of foreign dignitaries and planned trips abroad by Israeli officials.The strike, which has also temporarily suspended all consular services to Israelis abroad, came after months-long talks with the Finance Ministry broke down earlier in the week.

If no solution is found to the rekindled labor dispute, the strike could endanger the upcoming visits to Israel by British Prime Minister David Cameron and Pope Francis.

The ministry’s Workers Union, which is fighting for higher salaries and better working conditions for diplomats serving abroad, published a list of more than two dozen measures that took effect as of Tuesday. For instance, Foreign Ministry official will no longer cooperate in organizing visits of foreign presidents, prime ministers, foreign ministers and other officials. Likewise, the diplomats will henceforth refuse to assist Israeli officials currently abroad or planning overseas trips. No diplomatic passports will be issued and “no assistance whatsoever” will be granted to Israeli officials abroad. In addition, all consular services to Israeli citizens are suspended; exceptions will only be made in cases where lives are in danger or bodies need to be returned to Israel for burials.

Furthermore, the ministry is temporarily suspending any cooperation with government institutions, specifically the Finance Ministry but also the Shin Bet and Mossad intelligence services and the IDF. No diplomatic cables are being sent by diplomats and the cadets course and distribution of pro-Israel public diplomacy materials has been put on hold. Diplomats have been instructed to cease any contact with the United Nations, including Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the Security Council, and other international organizations, including peacekeeping missions on Israel’s borders, such as UNIFIL and UNDOF.

Last summer, the Workers Union initiated similar labor sanctions, which were suspended at the end of July when the diplomats and the Finance Ministry agreed to approach a mediator. Now the union blames the Finance Ministry for sabotaging the talks. “Ministry official prefer slurs, lies and manipulation rather than substantive solutions,” it said in a statement.

“Finance Ministry officials chose to act in a way that is unworthy of public servants, and their behavior reached a low point when after seven months of mediated negotiations they presented us with an offer that says, ‘Continue to give your all, you’ll get absolutely nothing in return,’” said Yair Frommer, the union’s chairman, in a statement.

About a third of Israelis who joined the foreign service in the last decade have quit, mostly for financial reasons, a diplomat told The Times of Israel. “People can’t make a go of it,” the diplomat said. “The demands of the union are 100 percent legitimate. Salaries for diplomats serving abroad have not been updated in 12 years. Now even if inflation is low, your salary depreciates dramatically over so many years.”

“I’m told that the employees were more militant than what the union expected,” a diplomat said about Tuesday’s meeting, during which a new round of labor sanctions was decided upon. “People are very angry. The truth is that this could have been sorted out a long time ago. It’s not a huge amount of money, in the big picture. But individually, it is a lot of money for the people who can’t make ends meet.”

Responding to a Times of Israel query, the Finance Ministry said that it presented a program that would “improve the conditions of the [Foreign Ministry] employees and their spouses… However, the workers insist on salary increases for the holders of highest salaries in the ministry. We call on the employees not to thwart the mediation process and to address our proposal in a substantive way.”

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