Suppose they gave a strike and nobody came

Hardly anyone cares that Israeli diplomats are in the second week of all-out labor action, raising the question: Is the Foreign Ministry necessary?

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

Foreign Ministry workers protesting in Jerusalem on March 24, 2014. The sign reads "Strike here." (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Foreign Ministry workers protesting in Jerusalem on March 24, 2014. The sign reads "Strike here." (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

About four and half years ago, around High Holiday season, the Israel Airports Authority employees union called a general strike, grounding all departing flights and delaying the unloading of luggage from incoming flights. The strike lasted for all of eight hours before the Finance Ministry and the union reached an agreement.

Lessons learned: Striking can effectively demonstrate that your work is indispensable, and if a strike really hurts people it can be successful very quickly.

For the Foreign Ministry’s Workers Union, the idea of a strike has not worked out nearly as well. Last week, the union declared a full-blown general strike, shutting down the ministry’s headquarters in Jerusalem and 103 embassies and consulates worldwide. The drastic move, the first such closure in Israel’s history, followed three weeks of increased labor sanctions, which included the cessation of any contacts with foreign governments and the United Nations and the suspension of all consular services to Israelis abroad. These measures were implemented after the breakdown of a nine-month mediation process, which, in turn, was initiated after months during which the diplomats had implemented increasingly harsh labor sanctions.

No end is in sight. “I cannot tell you at the moment how long [the strike] will take,” Yair Frommer, the head of the Workers Union, said Monday, explaining that reports of its imminent end were premature. “It could take days, it could take weeks, it could take more.”

Calling a strike that very few people really care about risks making the strikers look irrelevant. The fact that for the last few months the most important aspects of Israel’s foreign policy have been handled not by the Foreign Ministry but other bodies or individuals certainly doesn’t help the diplomats make their case to be the ones “saving Israel’s foreign service.”

“The strike at the end of the day will hurt the diplomats,” a former senior diplomat told The Times of Israel last week. “You’re as good as your threats. But if you materialize your threats, then the threats are gone. If the threats aren’t biting, then you lost a major card and this is what the Foreign Ministry has lost.”

Although he served as a diplomat for 20 years, the official, who asked to remain unnamed, did not shy away from saying what many Israelis dealing with the foreign service think: “People don’t care. They really don’t need the Foreign Ministry.”

It hasn’t been easy for Israel’s diplomats to convince the public, or anyone else, of the righteousness of their cause. Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman and his colleagues in the Treasury and the Prime Minister’s Office have so far refused to make any significant move to help end the strike. (While Liberman admitted that the conditions of lower-level diplomats deserve to be improved, he attacked some of the union’s demands as absurd and unrealistic, and lamented the strikers’ alleged violence.)

On Monday, the Workers Union invited several dozen foreign diplomats to Jerusalem to brief them about the strike, hoping for some understanding and support. But instead of a shoulder to cry on, the Israelis found a grumpy bunch who complained about no longer being able to do their work and were worried about their accreditations expiring soon.

Foreign diplomats understood the problems very well, but “we cannot legitimately express any solidarity,” Despoina Lourbacou, a senior official at the Greek embassy, told her Israeli colleagues, demanding that foreign diplomats be informed about any advancement of the labor negotiations so that they could at least plan ahead. If the strike didn’t end soon, she said, “our lives will be difficult, not just our jobs.”

Workers Union chairman Yair Frommer speaking to foreign diplomats outside the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, on Monday, March 31, 2014. (photo credit: Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)
Workers Union chairman Yair Frommer speaking to foreign diplomats outside the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, on Monday, March 31, 2014. (photo credit: Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)

Why couldn’t Israel’s diplomatic corps, supposedly recruited from the country’s brightest minds, pull off in over a year what the airport workers managed to do in less than half a day? Because not enough people are directly affected by the strike.

As long as it doesn’t hurt the average Joe, he will not demand steps to end it. True, some Israelis are stuck abroad and can’t return, as pointed out last week: tourists who lost their passports, Filipino caretakers who visited their families back home, parents of newborn children who went through a surrogacy procedure. Israeli embassies have stopped assisting in the transport of bodies of deceased citizens, and for a while it looked like Chabad would have to cancel the world’s biggest Passover night meal in Nepal. (The organization has since promised the seder will take place, strike be damned.)

But by and large, the world continues to turn, and Israelis — even senior government officials — keep on going about their business as if nothing happened. Yes, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had to cancel his planned Latin America trip, and some top officials were prevented from traveling because the diplomats refused to issue diplomatic passports, arrange security or perform other necessary tasks. And it’s true that a few foreign dignitaries and business delegations, likewise, called off their planned arrivals in Israel, such as Mswati III, the King of Swaziland, or the president of Micronesia, Emanuel Mori.

But other dignitaries came to Israel and held meetings as if nothing were amiss. US Army chief Martin Dempsey, Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn and other top officials arrived in the middle of the strike and met with their Israeli counterparts. Even UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s high-profile visit, including a speech in the Knesset, took place despite the Foreign Ministry’s warnings that it would not lift a finger to help. (Israel’s ambassador to London, Daniel Taub, pointed out that he and his colleagues “worked very intensively” on preparing the visit “for a period of months” before it actually took place.)

Even Pope Francis’s planned May visit will most likely take place, Archbishop Guiseppe Lazzarotto, the Vatican’s chief envoy in Israel, confirmed to The Times of Israel this week, saying that despite certain “complications,” the strike does not present a serious obstacle, since Israel and the Vatican had agreed to the schedule before the strike began.

Top Israeli officials seeking to go abroad, similarly, have run into some problems but it has not been impossible for them to proceed with their travel plans. Last week, Liberman flew to Greece and this week President Shimon Peres is visiting Austria.

President Peres, left, speaking in Vienna this week next to his Austrian counterpart Heinz Fischer (photo credit: Mark Neiman/GPO)
President Peres, left, speaking in Vienna this week next to his Austrian counterpart Heinz Fischer (photo credit: Mark Neiman/GPO)

Foreign Ministry officials claim the president’s trip had been prepared long in advance, and that Liberman flew to Athens without any diplomats, probably to show them that he’s unimpressed with their strike and that, as far as he’s concerned, it’s business as usual.

But a bilateral meeting conducted without the support of trained diplomats, who come prepared, take notes and prepare follow-up, is “entirely meaningless,” a ministry official said.

More than obstructing travel plans, withholding consular services appears to be the diplomats’ strongest weapon, and even that can be circumvented, a former top diplomatic official said. He’s right: When some foreign athletes required visas to compete in the European Weightlifting Championships in Tel Aviv next week, the municipality and the Interior Ministry stepped in to ensure the athletes would be granted the needed paperwork on arrival.

The bottom line: The strike is a nuisance at best, but it doesn’t drastically impair the proper functioning of Israel’s foreign policy apparatus.

Or so it seems to the outside world. Other observers say diplomats do critical work, even if it is not felt right away. According to Edward Luttwak, a senior associate at the US-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, “there is no doubt about the huge damage already inflicted by the strike.”

Much of the harm done to Israel has nothing to do with canceled VIP visits or even stolen passports that can’t be replaced. “The fact is that there are all sorts of other things which cause frustration because of things we’re not doing because of the sanctions,” Taub, Israel’s ambassador in London, told The Times of Israel during a recent phone interview. “When we have missiles fired on Israel, or when we have weapons that are being intercepted [on ships such as the Klos-C, which Israel says attempted to smuggle Iranian weapons into Gaza] — those are things what we would generally be giving significant briefings about, we would be making sure they get attention in the media.” But during the strike, no meetings or briefings are being held, no newsletters, Facebook posts or official tweets are being published.

Diplomats are not even supposed to speak with the press in an organized way. Taub agreed to speak to The Times of Israel only about the strike and would not discuss any other matters.

Foreign Ministry workers protest outside the Foreign Ministry offices in Jerusalem, on March 24, 2014. Sign reads 'Here there is a strike'. (photo credit: Meital Cohen/Flash90)
Foreign Ministry workers protest outside the Foreign Ministry offices in Jerusalem, on March 24, 2014. Sign reads ‘Here there is a strike’. (photo credit: Meital Cohen/Flash90)

“We hear a lot of statements from Israel’s leadership and of course the world’s Jewish leadership about the importance that they’re attaching today to combating delegitimization, to combating the BDS [Boycott, Divest and Sanction] movement, to making sure that Israel’s profile is raised and so on. It’s hard to square those kind of statements with the treatment to which Israeli diplomats abroad, who are on the front lines of that battle, are being treated,” he said.

The anti-Israel boycott movement is slowly gaining steam on US campuses and the Foreign Ministry, more than anyone else, can help stem the tide, according to former deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon, who served as diplomat for 20 years and currently teaches at Yeshiva University in New York.

“I see that it’s still isolated cases, but this is how it started in Europe 20 years ago. These isolated cases could easily become an avalanche and mainstream,” Ayalon said, referring to the salad days of the BDS movement. “The Foreign Ministry is the only ministry that can combat that with its geographic representation everywhere. We have nine consulates in the US and they’re all on strike now. BDS is the main challenge.”

Earlier this month, a group of 11 pro-Israel advocacy groups in the UK sent a letter to Netanyahu urging him to intervene so Jerusalem’s diplomats could continue promoting the Jewish state. Britain is of essential importance in terms of diplomacy and world public opinion, and the “tireless work of Israel’s diplomats is absolutely crucial to protecting and advancing the cause of Israel,” the letter read. “Without wishing to become involved in internal labor disputes, we consider it important that you know what vital work Israel’s representatives are doing on a daily basis.”

Yet hasbara, public advocacy, is not everything. When important Israeli delegations of businessmen or scientists arrive in a foreign country, the local embassy would usually begin working hard to make sure they would be meeting their counterparts. These efforts are frozen as well, and quietly cause tremendous damage. The Israel Chamber of Commerce in China last week also wrote a letter to Netanyahu and other top government officials, complaining that the Foreign Ministry strike has kept current and future Chinese investors away. “We estimate that the damage amounts to several millions of dollars of potential investments in Israeli companies,” the letter states.

But are fighting marginal critics of Israel and promoting business ties the Foreign Ministry’s key responsibilities? What may sound bizarre to some has become somewhat of a reality over the last few years, as key duties have been removed from the ministry and redistributed. Much of Israel’s foreign policy is the purview of the Prime Minister’s Office, the National Security Council and the Mossad, leaving little space for the Foreign Ministry to distinguish itself in the public eye.

‘People just assume or take it for granted, when there is no crisis, that it happens by itself. But it truly does not’

The peace talks with the Palestinians are conducted by Netanyahu’s personal envoy Isaac Molcho and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni; negotiations with Turkey are being handled by former Foreign Ministry director-general Joseph Ciechanover. The biannual “strategic dialogue” with the US and the Iranian nuclear file are taken care of by Strategic Affairs and International Relations Minister Yuval Steinitz. And the relationship with Diaspora Jewry belongs to Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett.

“All of this, by process of elimination, makes the Foreign Ministry the biggest single loser in Israel’s bureaucratic wars,” noted Aharon Klieman, the founding director of Tel Aviv University’s Abba Eban Graduate Program in Diplomatic Studies. “Its mandate and terms of reference have shrunken so badly as to reduce it to the level of a secondary and increasingly marginal actor,” he wrote last year in the Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs. “The management, or mismanagement, of Israeli foreign affairs is not just scandalous, it is intolerable,” Klieman added. “In truth, however, it appears to be tolerated.”

A Foreign Ministry worker lying in a tent as he strike outside the Foreign Ministry offices in Jerusalem, on March 24, 2014. (photo Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
A Foreign Ministry worker lying in a tent as he strike outside the Foreign Ministry offices in Jerusalem, on March 24, 2014. (photo Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

And yet, there still does remain more to the Foreign Ministry than renewing passports for tourists, issuing visas for trade delegations, arranging visits for dignitaries and doing hasbara, argued Itamar Rabinovich, a former Israeli ambassador to the US. There is real diplomatic, indispensable work that is being done, even if no one notices it immediately when it grinds to a halt.

It is true that the ministry’s role has declined in recent months — due to the creation of Steinitz’ ministry and a period of time during which Israel had no foreign minister, while Liberman was fighting corruption claims, Rabinovich admitted.

But “to say that the Foreign Ministry has no relevance is stretching it,” he insisted. The peace process is in the hands of the prime minister — it has been for decades — and Iran and Turkey and other foreign policy issues are handled elsewhere, but there are countless other areas in which Israeli diplomats do quiet but crucial work, he said.

Israelis can live without a functioning diplomacy apparatus, but only for a very short time, and only as long as things run more or less smoothly, he suggested. “You discover how important it is when a crisis breaks bout. People just assume or take it for granted, when there is no crisis, that it happens by itself. But it truly does not,” Rabinovich said.

For instance, Israel joining the European Union’s prestigious Horizon 2020 R&D program was not achieved with one phone call to Catherine Ashton but rather required “day-in-day-out give and take with EU bureaucracy,” Rabinovich said. “Many policymakers think they can run US-Israel relations from Jerusalem, not realizing how much legwork needs to be done in Congress, with the media, on the local level. This is all done by diplomats. And they’re irreplaceable.”

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