Israelis go postal over failing mail system, but it could be a lot worse

An international study ranked the Israel Postal Company 35th out of 159 countries, behind the US and Algeria but ahead of France and the UK

Simona Weinglass is an investigative reporter at The Times of Israel.

A postal worker stands in the selection hall at a post office in Tel Aviv February, 22, 2010. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash 90)
A postal worker stands in the selection hall at a post office in Tel Aviv February, 22, 2010. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash 90)

Just how bad is Israel’s postal system? Pretty bad, if you judge from posts on Israeli social media.

“Is this Russia in 1991 or Israel in 2015?” reads one post accompanied by a photo of a long line outside a post office.

An image of a turtle posted December 6 with the words, “You buy clothes for a 3-year-old girl and get them when she turns 4,” was liked over 12,000 times.

Comedian Gadi Wilcherski recently camped out in a post office with a tent, sleeping bag and barbecue to protest the long lines.

“How long have you been waiting here?” he asks customers.

“45 minutes,” says one.

“Too long,” says another.

גדי מקים אוהל בסניף דואר!(הקטע ששודר אתמול בצינור-לילה)החזית

Posted by ‎Gadi Wilcherski גדי וילצ'רסקי‎ on Wednesday, May 20, 2015

In fact, there is even a Facebook group with 5,000 fans, “The Israel Postal Company has crossed every line,” devoted exclusively to complaints about the government-owned corporation.

A Facebook post protesting long lines (Facebook)
A Facebook post protesting long lines (Facebook)


Earlier this month, a fresh scandal erupted when consumers reported that sellers on eBay were refusing to sell to Israelis, not as a political boycott, but because their packages weren’t arriving at their destination.

“So sorry, I do not ship to Israel anymore. Too many issues with buyers not getting their packages,” a seller reportedly tells a customer who posted a screenshot on the Israel Postal Company’s Facebook page.

The package revolution

Maya Avishai, a spokeswoman for the Israel Postal Company, concedes that there were isolated incidents of “one or two” sellers who refused to ship to Israel, but to put this in context, it was “out of tens of thousands of sellers throughout the world.”

In fact, says Avishai, the number of packages entering the country increased by 30 percent in the last year, and this fact “proves that there is no boycott.” The Israel Postal Company transfers two million pieces of mail per day, she says, and, yes, occasionally there are foul-ups.

“But that’s not the main story,” she tells The Times of Israel.

A 30% increase in a single year is a staggering number, one that potentially explains the long lines and complaints about service at post offices. With the rise of email and online bill paying, postal carriers around the world have been in decline, and the Israel Postal Carrier has cut staff and reduced mail delivery days. Some experts argue that postal systems no longer have any reason to exist. But the global surge in e-commerce (25% growth worldwide in 2015) is giving them a new lease on life.

A Facebook post that says "you order clothes for a 3-year-old girl on eBay and get them when she's 4" (Facebook)
A Facebook post that says “You order clothes for a 3-year-old girl on eBay and get them when she’s 4” (Facebook)

In fact, a recent study of 29 countries by Ipsos, commissioned by PayPal, found that 71% of Israelis had ordered something from outside the country’s borders in the last year, a percentage surpassed only by Ireland and Austria.

Arik Bismut, a hair stylist from Petah Tikva, is one of those Israelis. Four years ago, he marched in the large-scale social justice protests against the high cost of living in Israel. Today, he protests with his pocketbook.

“You see this sweatshirt? It cost me 15 pounds, from Asos. That’s 90 shekels. In Israel it would cost 300 shekels. These jeans cost me 20 pounds, also on Asos.”

Arik Bismut (Simona Weinglass/The Times of Israel)
Arik Bismut (Simona Weinglass/The Times of Israel)

Bismut points to everything he is wearing and says it was purchased from Chinese or European sellers on the Internet. He also buys baby clothes and toys as well as light fixtures for his apartment. On average, he and his wife get 10 packages a month.

Kinneret Friedman, a mother of three from Tel Aviv, gets about one package a month.

“Why should I pay two times as much for tights in an Israeli mall when I can get it on the Internet?” she asks. “Since all the clothes are made in China anyway, I don’t see the difference. I want to support the Israeli economy, but not if it costs me twice as much.”

Friedman says she buys clothes for her kids from Next, clothes for herself from Asos, toys for her son from eBay and smartphone covers from AliExpress.

Indeed, Maya Avishai, the post office spokeswoman, singled out Next and AliExpress as companies that send a huge volume of packages to Israel.

“We’ve seen a 40 percent increase in packages from Next,” she says, “and people buy all kinds of things related to cell phones from AliExpress.”

Avishai says the postal service is coping by adding more than 120 new package distribution centers, extending opening hours till 8 p.m., sending package notifications by SMS, and letting people make appointments to pick up mail rather than waiting in line, among other improvements.

But consumers are skeptical. Bismut says his post office in Petah Tikva is still overwhelmed. “There are 22 tellers and at any given time there are 200-250 people in the hall waiting, all day long. They’re collapsing under the pressure.”

To its credit, the postal company has only lost a single package of his since he began ordering online. When asked to rank the Israel Postal Company Bismut says, “7 out of 10.”

How does the Israeli postal system stack up?

In a 2014 paper entitled “Letter Grading Government Efficiency,” professors Andrei Shleifer of Harvard University, Florencio Lopez-de-Silanes of EDHEC Business School, Alberto Chong and Rafael La Porta ranked the postal services of 159 countries.

All of these countries have signed the Universal Postal Union treaty, which requires them to return letters posted to an incorrect address. The professors posted letters from Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to 10 fake addresses in each country and waited to see how many of these letters came back.

On December 15, 2015 Tel Aviv resident Daniel Kanas redesigned the Israel Postal Company's logo for satirical purposes (Facebook)
On December 15, 2015 Tel Aviv resident Daniel Kanas redesigned the Israel Postal Company’s logo for satirical purposes (Facebook)

Israel’s postal system ranked 35th in the world, with 9 out of 10 of the letters returned and the average letter taking 107 days to make its way back. In addition to the one letter that was lost, three of the letters took longer than the mandated three months to return. Israel ranked below countries like the United States, Finland, Morocco and Romania, but above France and the United Kingdom. The full ranking of countries can be viewed here.

“Israel’s ranking is not terrible,” Lopez-de-Silanes told The Times of Israel from his office in France. “But given the country’s level of development, it’s a bit low. If you look at the list, developing countries like Mexico and Nicaragua do better than Israel. There’s room for improvement.”

Asked why some developing countries performed better than some industrialized nations, Lopez-de-Silanes says that the results are not only explained by the country’s wealth, but also by government efficiency.

Florencio Lopez-de-Silanes (Courtesy)
Florencio Lopez-de-Silanes (Courtesy)

In fact, he says, mail is more than just mail.

“It’s a proxy for something much bigger. In our data, the amount of resources in a postal system impacts the return of the letters. But on top of that, what we find is that the quality of management, the quality of organization, has a big effect.”

In other words, in some postal systems a piece of mail might fall on the floor and never be seen again while others have systems to ensure this never happens. And how effective these systems are tends to make a larger statement about the country as a whole.

Israel, says Lopez-de-Silanes, is not as bad as Russia, where “not a single letter came back in the 400 days we waited.”

Following the study, Russian television aired a 10-minute segment showing grandmothers crying outside of a post office while cats wandered through a storage backroom eating the letters.

Meanwhile, “the New Zealand government called us to say how come we’re number 7 and we’re not number one? What went wrong?”

Australia, ranked 31st, also called.

Lopez-de-Silanes says those countries with a strong self-critical streak are more likely to improve. Could this be good news for Israel, where complaining about the Postal Company is a national pastime?

“These [self-critical] countries try to fix themselves,” says Lopez-de-Silanes. “The countries at the bottom don’t even care.”

Most Popular
read more: