For the past month, officials not sending out diplomatic cables

Israeli diplomacy in disarray as Foreign Ministry strike looms

PM’s trip to China and president’s visit to Vatican under threat as staffers, angry about pay and their ministry being ‘hacked to pieces,’ prepare to expand already damaging sanctions

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

Minister of International Relations Yuval Steinitz with Norwegian Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide (R) in Jerusalem, April 4, 2013. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/Flash90)
Minister of International Relations Yuval Steinitz with Norwegian Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide (R) in Jerusalem, April 4, 2013. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/Flash90)

A labor dispute between Israeli diplomats and the Finance Ministry is likely to escalate into a full-blown strike at the Foreign Ministry in the coming days, jeopardizing planned trips abroad by Israeli leaders and visits to Israel by foreign dignitaries.

The diplomats are fighting for more pay and better working conditions, and against the fact that in the current government some of the Foreign Ministry’s key roles have been handed to other government institutions. The mood among many in the ministry is bitter and frustrated, and diplomats warn that the correct handling of many central aspects of Israel’s international relations is being severely undermined.

The ministry’s workers’ union declared a labor dispute back in February, and about a month ago drastically intensified it by asking staff to stop sending emails and diplomatic cables along with additional measures to disrupt the proper 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.

“This fight will be with us for weeks if not months,” a diplomat said this week.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs building in Jerusalem. (photo: Nati Shohat/Flash90)
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs building in Jerusalem. (photo: Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Several Israeli diplomatic sources, stationed in Israel and Europe, told The Times of Israel that the current labor sanctions deeply disrupt their work, and it seems probable that the current labor dispute will turn into a full-blown strike that could severely impair Israeli leaders’ ability to conduct foreign policy. In 2011, a month-long strike by Foreign Ministry workers forced Russian President Vladimir Putin to cancel a planned visit to Israel.

The head of the workers’ union, Yair Frommer, told The Times of Israel that the gaps between the two sides “are still wide” and that if no acceptable is offer is made in the coming days the sanctions will be expanded, so much so as to totally interrupt the government’s ability to manage the country’s foreign relations.

Upcoming trips abroad by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres could be affected, he warned.

Peres is scheduled to visit Rome for a meeting with Pope Francis on Monday, April 29, and the prime minister is planning to leave for China early next month. The possibility of Netanyahu’s visit being endangered is particularly disconcerting, since he has twice canceled planned trips to the People’s Republic, offending its leaders, and it took extensive diplomatic work to obtain a third invitation. Yet Foreign Ministry staff have already refused to issue visas to members of the prime minister’s security crew who had planned to go on a preliminary visit to China, according to Maariv.

The current labor sanctions have derailed the travel plans of Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Finance Minister Yair Lapid, who asked for but did not receive diplomatic passports, according to the same paper. Education Minister Shai Piron last week traveled to Warsaw on his personal passport. Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger was refused a visa to the United States, the daily reported.

Israeli civilians, too, may be affected if the workers’ union launches an all-out strike, since it could suspend consular services in Israeli missions across the globe.

“The situation is such that one in three young diplomats in the ministry quits because they can’t make ends meet,” Frommer said, 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, with Netanyahu acting as minister and holding the post for the possible return of former foreign minister Avigdor Liberman, if he beats fraud and breach of trust charges. (Liberman’s trial is slated to begin this week.) Justice Minister Tzipi Livni was tasked with managing peace negotiations with the Palestinians, a natural Foreign Ministry preserve. And a new International Relations Ministry was created, headed by Yuval Steinitz. In the eyes of the diplomats, all these changes deeply undermine the Foreign Ministry’s work.

“A new government was formed and the Foreign Ministry was hacked to pieces,” a diplomatic source said. “So the workers’ union added this [concern] to its banner. Of course in our discussions with the Finance Ministry we cannot demand of the prime minister to appoint a foreign minister. But it’s part of the anger.”

Besides curtailing professional correspondence, current labor sanctions also include the halting of processing political appointments to Israel’s missions abroad, the suspension of a professional dress code and a full boycott of Steinitz’s International Relations Ministry.

“We’re currently not cooperating with this entity,” Frommer said. “Its existence causes damage, because Steinitz doesn’t have the capabilities and competence to conduct foreign policy. He doesn’t have the required diplomatic tools. The Foreign Ministry has professionals who understand international relations and the sensitivities involved, who are able to deal with complex matters and know how to best explain foreign policy — taking that way from the Foreign Ministry hurts the State of Israel.”

Steinitz’s spokesperson declined to comment.

Netanyahu meets with foreign leaders but he “doesn’t dedicate the appropriate attention” to his role as acting foreign minister, Frommer charged. “That’s a problem.” The ministry needs a full-time minister, he insisted. “The Foreign Ministry needs to retain its standing and its competences. That includes budgets and appropriate working conditions for the workers. Without this, the State of Israel is damaged every day.”

In response to a Times of Israel query, the Finance Ministry stated that negotiations about “specifics items” are currently taking place between its officials, the Foreign Ministry and the Histadrut labor union, and that the source of the diplomats’ complaints is therefore “unclear.”

How does one prepare for the visit of a foreign dignitary without diplomatic cables? “It’s complicated” a diplomatic official said.

Several foreign dignitaries have canceled scheduled visits after learning that Netanyahu didn’t have time for them, Frommer said. Earlier this month, Cypriot Foreign Minister Ioannis Kasoulidis visited Israel but was angry because Netanyahu initially canceled a meeting with him due to scheduling difficulties. Kasoulidis was offered a meeting with Steinitz instead, but the “enraged” Cypriot minister refused, a diplomatic official said. The Prime Minister’s Office eventually rescheduled and a meeting with Netanyahu was held.

Belgium’s Foreign Minister Didier Reynders was scheduled to arrive on Friday for a three-day visit, but since Netanyahu could not find time in his schedule to receive him, the visit was pushed off to a yet unknown date.

The Belgian minister’s rescheduling is unrelated to the current labor dispute, several Foreign Ministry sources said. Indeed, so far the workers’ union has refrained from obstructing visits of foreign dignitaries. This week, the Foreign Ministry hosted the foreign ministers of Spain, Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo, and Azerbaijan, Elmar Mammadyarov. (The visit of US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was not coordinated by the Foreign Ministry.)

Last week, Netanyahu flew to London for the funeral of Margaret Thatcher, and he also met with British Prime Minister David Cameron. “But that wasn’t an official state visit, it was the participation in a funeral,” Frommer said. “If it had been an [official state] visit, I think we would have dealt with it differently.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with British Prime Minister David Cameron in London, April 17, 2013 (photo credit: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with British Prime Minister David Cameron in London, April 17, 2013 (photo credit: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO/Flash90)

Frommer threatened that there is “no guarantee” that the union’s current policy to not obstruct foreign visits will remain in place for much longer. Negotiations with the ministry’s leadership and the Finance Ministry began “not well,” he said, and the future of the strike depends on how the talks develop in the coming days, he said Tuesday.

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 as usual. However, according to several diplomats interviewed for this article, 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.

“At this point, no diplomatic cables are being sent, which makes life very difficult for decision makers in this country,” a diplomat stationed in Jerusalem said. Exceptions are only made for special, “very relevant” cases, such as a recent security-related instance relating to North Korea, Frommer said.

How does one prepare for the visit of a foreign dignitary without written correspondence? “It’s complicated,” a senior diplomatic official said. “You manage somehow, you do it over the phone.”

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. “We use emails for practical purposes, but not for diplomatic content,” he said. “True, the union told people not to send cables or emails. Some people adhere strictly to that rule — they are glatt kosher,” he said wryly, “and others are only regular kosher or even kosher-style.”

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. “It impacts on the work atmosphere and our efficiency,” a diplomat admitted.

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