Proudly representing Israel, unable to make ends meet
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Reporter's notebookDiplomats are refusing posts in consulates across the US

Proudly representing Israel, unable to make ends meet

The Times of Israel is invited to watch the embassy in Paris in action, to better understand Foreign Ministry staffers’ complaints about their employment terms

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Israeli diplomats protest in Tel Aviv holding a sign reading 'Lost diplomacy = an isolated Israel,' July 3, 2103 (Flash90/Roni Schutzer)
Israeli diplomats protest in Tel Aviv holding a sign reading 'Lost diplomacy = an isolated Israel,' July 3, 2103 (Flash90/Roni Schutzer)

PARIS — Just around the corner from the Champs-Élysées, housed in a handsome building designed by Paris architect Baron Haussmann, lies Israel’s embassy in France.

Enter the building, and you are in Jerusalem. Reproductions of ancient mosaics decorate the marble floor and pieces of pottery in elegant glass cases greet you wherever you turn. Aerial photos of Tel Aviv’s shoreline adorn the Jerusalem-stone walls, next to black-and-white photos of David Ben-Gurion standing alongside, or rather under, a towering General de Gaulle.

It was not easily that Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs allowed this journalist into one of its most prestigious embassies, to follow the diplomats’ routine and experience their daily work firsthand. But desperate times call for desperate measures. The foreign service is in deep trouble, and the powers that be — at the very highest levels — want the world, and especially their fellow countrymen and women, to hear their frustration.

It has been nearly five months since the employees of the Foreign Ministry announced a labor dispute with the government. The ministry has stopped coordinating visits for Israeli dignitaries abroad and issuing visas for Israel; but so far, nobody in the government seems to be listening. While a previous dispute revolved around diplomats’ salaries during their time in Israel, this struggle focuses on work conditions and pensions of diplomats and their spouses while serving abroad.

Little seems to irk these diplomats more than their public image as bon viveurs. It is true, they admit, that salaries are higher for diplomats on mission abroad than at home, “but this only allows us to save up a few euros for ‘the years of starvation’ upon our return,” said one. A diplomat’s monthly salary during his first five years is roughly NIS 6,000 ($1,680). The paycheck of a diplomat with 15 years of experience, sheepishly revealed by the ministry workers’ union, is only NIS 1,500 ($420) higher than that.

‘People ask themselves: ‘Why should I give up my salary and my wife’s salary and drag my children to some remote hole? Within a few years, there will be no one left to go abroad’

These salaries — among the lowest in Israel’s public sector — compounded with the fact that diplomats’ spouses are not compensated for giving up their careers and pensions when traveling overseas for a number of years, explain why one of every three trained diplomats leaves the Israeli foreign service within his first 10 years on the job.

When abroad, diplomats’ salaries are tied to the local currency and predicted cost of living. But salaries have not been updated in 10 years, leading to a significant erosion in their buying power.

“There is an extremely acute problem,” says Michel Lugassy-Harel, who serves as the embassy’s administrative manager. “We have 15 unfilled positions [in the ministry’s embassies]. People ask themselves: ‘Why should I give up my salary and my wife’s salary and drag my children to some remote hole? Within a few years, there will be no one left to go abroad.”

For purely economic reasons, many diplomats’ wives are now opting to stay in Israel and maintain their careers and pensions, leaving their husbands to serve alone, he said.

Israeli diplomat Michel Lugassy-Harel, July 2013 (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)
Israeli diplomat Michel Lugassy-Harel, July 2013 (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)

In the United States, where employees’ salaries are tied to the relatively weak dollar, the situation has deteriorated to critical levels. Diplomats are now refusing posts in Israeli consulates across the country; and those who do go often rely on savings to fund an expensive education system and high cost of living.

“The situation is unacceptable,” says one mid-ranking diplomat who served for years in the United States. “People understand that under current conditions it doesn’t pay to retire [after a career in] the Foreign Ministry. It’s very bleak.”

Israel allocates just 0.15 percent of GDP to its Foreign Ministry budget, much less than the sum allocated by developed European countries such as Great Britain (0.75 percent of GDP) and Germany (0.4 percent). Given the formidable diplomatic challenges facing Israel, that ratio seems laughable, the diplomats argue. The sum total of the diplomats’ budgetary demands is NIS 30 million ($8.4 million), a drop in the bucket of Israel’s annual budget.

Why have things come to this? Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, murmur some diplomats, seems intent on destroying the Foreign Ministry, which he regards as too independent-minded. There is no other way of explaining his creation of Yuval Steinitz’s Ministry of International Relations (“what are we, the foreign ministry for domestic relations?” asked one diplomat bitterly); or his giving the Palestinian negotiations portfolio to Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and his own confidante Yitzhak Molcho. Why, they wonder, has Netanyahu not appointed a full-time foreign minister (especially since the acting foreign minister — Netanyahu himself — visited the ministry just once in the past three months, according to the Israeli daily Haaretz).

Foreign Ministry workers are not just struggling for their own conditions, they stress. Embassies greatly rely on external Israeli employees who are not part of the ministry staff. Filling mostly administrative and consular positions, these workers, known by the Hebrew acronym AMI, receive salaries as poor as the diplomats’, minus the subsidized housing and education. Their plight is also part of the current Foreign Ministry struggle.

Lugassy-Harel said he has been trying to employ an AMI as the ambassador’s secretary for the past eight months, to no avail.

‘We are a country struggling for its life, and we need the tools to help it’

“Every time I interview candidates they get excited about the job, but then we come to the salary and they say ‘thanks but no thanks.'”

Serving abroad can be dangerous, too. Consider the story of Nina Ben Ami, whose husband contracted a rare syndrome which left him paralyzed from the neck down after a visit to a remote village in the Ivory Coast. In a recent letter sent to Finance Minister Yair Lapid, Ben Ami said that her husband had given up a fulfilling career as a computer systems manager to join her in Africa, Ynet reported.

Paris embassy director of public relations Elad Ratson spent the tail end of his last posting in the Ivory Coast besieged in an embassy compound in the capital Abidjan, “with bullets flying over my head” during the ouster of President Laurent Gbagbo in April 2011.

The French model of compensation for foreign servants is one that people in the embassy here would love to receive. France pays diplomats’ spouses a high proportion of their original salary when abroad, and incentivizes diplomats to serve in difficult countries by doubling their salaries and vacation days there.

Those are conditions Israeli diplomats can only dream of.

“We are a country struggling for its life, and we need the tools to help it,” Ratson concluded.

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