Foreign ministry employees on strike
Foreign ministry employees protesting in June, 2013. Photo by Emil Salman
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Foreign Ministry employees declared a general strike on Sunday, following two weeks of renewed sanctions. The strike is expected to close down the country’s foreign missions and totally paralyze the Israeli diplomatic system.

For the first time in the history of the State of Israel, 103 Israeli missions abroad will be completely closed for an indefinite period of time, as will the Foreign Ministry's headquarters in Jerusalem.

The strike was called in protest of the employment conditions of Israeli diplomats and the Finance Ministry's decision to cut their salaries over the renewed sanctions.

The Foreign Ministry's workers' union informed all employees in Israel and abroad by email and text messages that the general strike would begin at 3 P.M. on Sunday and instructed them to leave their workplaces immediately.

"Foreign Ministry headquarters will be closed to all activities. All workers in all positions are ordered to stay away from the office," the committee said in a statement to all workers. "Israeli missions abroad will be closed as of Monday March 24. All workers in all positions are ordered to stay away from the missions."

"The strike has no time limit and will continue as long as necessary," the message to all ministry workers stated. "We instruct all employees to obey these instructions as written. We will be strong and together we will achieve our goals."

Foreign Ministry sources said that the missions abroad would be completely closed and that security officers were instructed to prevent entrance to all, including officials from the defense ministry, the Israel Defense Forces, the Mossad, Shin Bet security service and other government ministries.

The Jerusalem headquarters will be locked over the course of the strike and entry will be denied to Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Deputy Foreign Minister Ze'ev Elkin and Director-General Nissim Ben-Sheetrit.

"The Treasury has declared a war-to-the-death against the Foreign Ministry of the State of Israel and the dedicated diplomats who fight for the rights of Israelis daily," said Ya'akov Frumer, chairman of the Foreign Ministry workers committee.

"We will not accept the relentless disregard of finance ministry officials intent on sabotaging the essential interests of the state of Israel. These officials irresponsibly ignore the citizens of Israel and are destroying the country's economy, its security and the future of us all with their bare hands."

Lieberman called the strike a "miserable decision that shows a lack of sense."

"There is no benefit to this at all," he said, "It will only cause the Foreign Ministry employees more harm. It is unfortunate that these irresponsible steps are being taken at the expense of citizens of the state, as contacts are being made with the Finance Ministry and over the course of mediation… we will do everything possible to minimize the damage being caused to the state and its citizens."

The exceptions committee dealing with requests by Israeli citizens or private companies affected by the action will continue to operate for the duration of the strike, but only for cases in which lives are in danger. The committee can be contacted at unionmfa@israel.org.

Under the sanctions declared two weeks ago, diplomats 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.

In response to the sanctions, the Treasury docked the salaries of Foreign Ministry employees. Following that, the workers' union instructed administration officers at all foreign missions to continue paying for the housing of Israeli diplomats and to pay salary advances to all employees.

The Finance Ministry said in a statement that "the Foreign Ministry's workers' union has taken the citizens of Israel hostage and is damaging the vital interests of the state."

"The Finance Ministry has offered solutions for the issues raised by the Foreign Ministry's workers," the statement said, "yet the union is demanding extra pay for high-ranking officials." The workers, the treasury said, received a 20 percent pay raise two years ago. "The union refused to accept the solutions and unilaterally abandoned the resolution process headed by Judge Steve Adler. We call upon the union to stop taking belligerent steps and return to the mediation efforts."

The labor dispute at the Foreign Ministry, which reached its climax over the summer and ended in mediation with the Finance Ministry, resumed this month with diplomats charging that Treasury representatives had failed to take the process seriously and had submitted "recycled" proposals that failed to solve the long-standing problems.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was forced last week to cancel what his office termed a "historic" visit to Latin America planned for April, after his bureau encountered many difficulties in making the necessary arrangements due to the diplomats’ sanctions, which include a blanket refusal to help cabinet ministers organize trips abroad.

The diplomats 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 canceled its trip as a result, and it is 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.