Liberman accuses striking diplomats of thuggery

Strike ‘diminishes public support’ and causes chaos, foreign minister says, but admits improvements could be made

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Avigdor Liberman speaking at the Knesset Tuesday. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Avigdor Liberman speaking at the Knesset Tuesday. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman on Tuesday slammed the Foreign Ministry’s Workers Union for the open-ended strike it launched earlier this week, accusing the diplomats of “violence” and “brutality” in their struggle for better pay and working conditions.

Liberman admitted that there was “room for improvement” regarding the pay of second-tier diplomats, but at the same time said some of the union’s demands were “absurd.”

“It’s the workers’ right to strike and to demand an improvement of their financial situation or their working condition. But I don’t accept going over to violence,” Liberman said at a press conference in the Knesset. “What happens today is that we hurt the poor sods who lost passports [abroad] and can’t return [to Israel]; we hurt babies and parents that went though processes of surrogacy and can’t reach Israel; we don’t return bodies of people who died abroad, and the consulates refuse to deal with them…; or the elderly patients whose caretakers traveled abroad and need to come back, and we don’t allow it.”

“This behavior damages our good name; it diminishes the public support for our struggle,” Liberman said. Israeli diplomats must not fight for their salaries at the expense of needy Israelis, he added.

On Sunday, the Workers Union called for an unlimited general strike, shutting down the Foreign Ministry building in Jerusalem and 103 embassies and consulate worldwide for the first time in Israel’s history. The drastic move came after a first round of labor sanctions last year and seven months of subsequent negotiations with the Finance Ministry, mediated by former Labor Court president Stephen Adler, yielded no results. Liberman chided the union for unilaterally terminating the mediation process and preventing Foreign Ministry workers from entering the building.

Liberman spoke of “verbal and physical violence,” describing how doors were sealed, electricity and water were cut off, and striking diplomats instructed cafeteria workers not to serve any food to people who had sat down for a meal. A senior official from the ministry’s legal department broke down in tears “after she was cursed and threatened and prevented from entering her office,” the minister claimed.

“I will not tolerate any violence,” he said, adding that he instructed the ministry’s management to cut off all contact with the union as long as workers cannot return to their offices.

Some of the actions taken by the union as part of the strike were illegal, the minister warned. “Don’t break the law,” he said, addressing officials in the ministry’s management who continued to pay salaries to diplomats abroad. “Any official who wires money without the explicit agreement of the Finance Ministry is robbing the public coffers. That’s a criminal act.”

Liberman acknowledged that the conditions of some diplomats need to be improved, but rejected some of the union’s claims as unrealistic, unjustified and even “absurd.” Israelis ambassadors earn between NIS 35,000 and NIS 50,000, he said. Israel’s ambassador to Nepal, for instance, earns exactly $9,752, or NIS 34,000, according to Liberman. Israeli ambassadors to European capitals have even higher salaries, he said.

He admitted, however, that pay is significantly lower for lower-level diplomats serving abroad. “There is room for improvement,” he said, but insisted that the often-made claims that diplomats leave the Foreign Service because they can’t make ends meet were false.

Liberman urged the union to resume the mediation process. “The Workers Union got caught up in an increasingly more complicated situation. It doesn’t have an exit strategy,” he said.

Striking workers outside the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, on March 25, 2104. (photo credit: courtesy)
Striking workers outside the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, on March 25, 2104. (photo credit: courtesy)

The head of the Workers Union, Yair Frommer, who was present at Liberman’s press conference, said he was happy that the foreign minister was finally getting involved in the labor dispute. He reiterated his position that in order to save Israel’s foreign service from collapsing, diplomats need to receive appropriate salaries. Foreign Ministry workers from all areas are united in their support of the current strike, he added.

“The pay stub of my friends, who have served for 15 years, appears at the end of the month NIS 9,000 ($2,600). They are the sole wage-earners, because their spouses had to forgo careers of their own because of service to the State of Israel. With these conditions they can’t make it to the end of the month,” Frommer said.

Frommer rejected Liberman’s accusations of violence. “We usually walk around in suit and tie; we took off the ties as the only symbolic step we took. We are cultured people who represent Israel in the world; we faithfully represent all 1,200 Foreign Ministry workers in Israel and abroad, and their families. These are people who never resorted to violence. Just the opposite: they endanger their lives for the sake of the Israel’s citizens and their safety.”

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