Foreign Ministry Officials Warn of Imminent Strike That Would Paralyze Israeli Diplomatic Activity

Due to labor sanctions, the Israeli delegation to UN didn't report seizure of Iranian arms shipment, so no international investigation will be opened.

Emil Salman

The work sanctions launched last week by Foreign Ministry employees are liable within the next few days to become a general strike that will close all of the country’s foreign missions and totally paralyze the Israeli diplomatic system, senior ministry officials estimate.

Last week a seven-month mediation process between the Finance Ministry and the Foreign Ministry workers that was being managed by former Labor Court President Steve Adler broke down. Both treasury and Foreign Ministry sources say that the employees’ representatives abandoned the process when they realized that Adler was about to accept the treasury’s proposal as a basis for a solution.

A draft of the treasury’s proposal which was published last week by TheMarker did not include global salary increases for Foreign Ministry employees, but did address several other problems, such as helping the diplomat’s spouse find work upon the couple’s return from a foreign posting, subsidies for day care abroad for children under age three and more. The treasury proposal was to cost over NIS 50 million ($14.4 million).

But the treasury document also called for structural reforms in the Foreign Service, such that the Foreign Ministry could assign diplomats to their second foreign posting in accordance with the ministry’s needs. At present, only on the first assignment must diplomats accept the posting they are assigned, no matter where it is. The treasury also wants to limit to four years the period that a diplomat can serve in Foreign Ministry headquarters between postings, and make serving abroad a prerequisite for promotions.

The Foreign Ministry workers’ committee said it had decided to drop out of the mediation because the treasury representatives were not negotiating seriously and had offered a “recycled” proposal that does not address the concerns of the diplomats and their families.

“Significant parts of the proposal already exist in practice for years, and many of the other items are conditions that had been previously given to the workers and their spouses but had been unilaterally taken from them,” said workers' union chairman Yair Frommer. “The main, material issues that the workers were raising during the entire process were totally ignored in the document the treasury presented to Judge Adler.”

Renewal of sanctions

After walking out of the mediation process, the workers' union announced it was renewing the sanctions that it had launched last year and that were in effect until seven months ago. These included a stoppage of all consular services to Israelis abroad, including the issuing of passports and travel documents at foreign missions. Foreign Ministry officials have also stopped preparations for official visits here and abroad, such as the visit of British Prime Minister David Cameron to Israel this week; Pope Francis’ planned visit here in May; Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trip to Colombia and Mexico in April; and President Shimon Peres’ planned state visit to Austria at the end of this month.

The sanctions have also included a halt to handling the political appointments of ambassadors and the issuing of diplomatic passports to senior Israeli officials. Diplomatic cables between the Foreign Ministry and the intelligence community and the defense establishment have ceased, work called for under economic and trade agreements has stopped and all public diplomacy activities have been halted. Thus, for example, Israeli missions abroad did not disseminate any of Israel’s messages regarding the Iranian arms shipment it intercepted last week, nor were politicians or journalists in foreign countries briefed on the matter.

Diplomats were also instructed to cut off all communication with the UN agencies in New York, Geneva and Vienna, not to attend debates in the Security Council, and not to participate in any votes or take any diplomatic action. As a result, the Israeli delegation to the United Nations did not approach the UN’s sanctions committee to report the seizure of the Iranian arms shipment, without which no international investigation will be opened.

Earlier this week sanctions were intensified, as diplomats were instructed not to conduct or attend any activity outside their diplomatic missions or Foreign Ministry headquarters in Jerusalem. “Every transfer of work-related information will be by diplomatic pouch only,” the workers were told. “Do not conduct any correspondence by electronic means, including telegrams, memos, emails, SMS, fax, etc. All correspondence that arrives electronically will be erased and will not be handled. There will be no handling of diplomatic mail addressed to other government ministries.”

In a controversial move that has also raised some internal criticism, the workers' union also ordered the severing of all ties with the ministry director-general and the transfer of any documents or position papers to Deputy Minister Ze’ev Elkin or Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. The workers claim that director-general Nissim Ben-Sheetrit has been trying to circumvent the sanctions, particularly with regard to organizing Cameron’s visit to Israel.

The workers vs. Lieberman

“The workers’ committee is going about this wrong,” said a senior Foreign Ministry official. “Instead of recruiting Lieberman to intervene in the crisis with Finance Minister Lapid, they are fighting with him. Instead of using the director-general’s connections and experience in these issues, they’ve decided to boycott him.”

The workers' union held a stormy meeting Monday with several hundred Foreign Ministry employees. According to committee members, many workers wanted to intensify the sanctions further and shut down the Foreign Ministry, while others, particularly the more junior employees, have reservations about such a move, fearing that a general strike would lead to nonpayment of their salaries.

Neither Netanyahu nor Lieberman are choosing to get involved at this stage. Netanyahu is trying to circumvent the sanctions in various ways, apparently hoping the workers will give up. Foreign Ministry officials say the sides are in a state of conflict and there is no solution to the work dispute in sight. “Under these circumstances a general strike is only a matter of days,” said one official.