Lieberman and Netanyahu.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Photo by Reuters
Text size

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has canceled a planned visit to Latin America in April due to the Foreign Ministry strike, Israeli officials said on Thursday.

This is the first trip abroad that Netanyahu has been forced to cancel since the diplomats’ sanctions began two weeks ago.

Netanyahu had planned to spend a few days in Colombia, Mexico and Panama in early April. This would have been the first Latin American visit by an Israeli prime minister ever, and Netanyahu’s bureau even termed it historic.

But over the past week, as preparations for the visit gathered steam, his bureau encountered many difficulties in making the necessary arrangements due to the diplomats’ sanctions, which include a blanket refusal to help organize trips abroad for any cabinet minister.

The Prime Minister’s Bureau then looked into organizing the trip itself with help from other government agencies that operate overseas. During the last Foreign Ministry strike, for instance, Netanyahu used the Mossad, the Defense Ministry, the Israel Defense Forces and the Shin Bet security service to organize trips to Poland and Austria despite the diplomats’ sanctions.

But according to a senior government official, this wasn’t possible for the Latin American trip, because Israeli embassies and consulates in Latin America are staffed almost exclusively by Foreign Ministry personnel. Efforts to have the host governments help organize the trips also didn’t pan out.

Netanyahu’s bureau declined Haaretz’s request for comment.

The three countries Netanyahu had planned to visit are all very friendly toward Israel. Recently, they helped Israel to win observer status in the Pacific Alliance – an organization of several Latin American states that generally maintain a pro-American policy and object to Iran’s presence in the region.

The visit to Colombia, which maintains an extensive network of diplomatic, economic and security ties with Israel, was supposed to be the main focus of the trip. Colombian President Jose Manuel Santos is up for reelection in May, and Netanyahu’s visit, which was slated to have a high media profile, was expected to help him politically.

The senior Israeli official said Santos and his aides voiced great disappointment over the visit’s cancellation.

The labor dispute at the Foreign Ministry is of long standing, but an earlier strike ended last summer after the two sides agreed to mediation. Two weeks ago, however, the diplomats quit the seven-month mediation process and relaunched their sanctions, charging that Finance Ministry representatives hadn’t taken the process seriously and had submitted “recycled” proposals that failed to solve the problems of the diplomats and their families.

Under the sanctions, diplomats have halted all consular services to Israelis, such as issuing passports or visas at Israeli missions overseas. They have also stopped handling official visits, whether by Israeli officials overseas or by foreign officials to Israel.

They also refused to handle British Prime Minister David Cameron’s visit last week (though he came anyway), and are now refusing to cooperate on preparations for the pope’s visit to Israel in May. A Vatican delegation that was supposed to have visited Israel to work on the arrangements therefore canceled its trip, and it’s now uncertain whether the pope’s visit will take place.

The diplomats have also stopped handling political appointments to ambassadorships, issuing diplomatic passports, transmitting diplomatic cables to intelligence and defense agencies, promoting economic and trade agreements and engaging in public diplomacy. Thus, for instance, Israeli missions abroad refused to disseminate any of the government’s talking points about the Iranian arms ship that Israel captured earlier this month, or to brief politicians and journalists in their host countries about it.

In addition, the diplomats have severed contact with UN institutions in New York, Geneva and Vienna, refusing even to attend Security Council debates or participate in votes. Consequently, Israel’s UN mission lodged no complaint with the UN sanctions committee on Iran over the capture of the Iranian arms ship, and without such a complaint, no international investigation can be opened on the matter.

Finally, diplomats are refusing to engage in any activity taking place outside their embassies and consulates or the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, and are also refusing to pass on any documents or position papers to Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Deputy Minister Zeev Elkin or ministry director general Nissim Ben-Sheetrit.