U.S. Consulate Claims Diplomatic Immunity, Ignores Labor Court Ruling

Consulate insists that Israeli courts have no jurisdiction over its affairs, apart from cases handled through diplomatic channels.

Almost four years after an Israeli labor court ordered the U.S. consulate to pay a former employee NIS 114,000, the consulate is still refusing to pay up, citing diplomatic immunity.

The consulate insists that Israeli courts have no jurisdiction over its affairs, apart from cases handled through diplomatic channels.

"We do not consider ourselves a side in this affair," the consulate wrote to Israel's Foreign Ministry two years ago, in its only reference to the case.

The former employee, B.M., is a 50-year-old Palestinian resident of East Jerusalem. He is currently employed by the United Nations in Jerusalem.

B.M. had been employed by the consulate, in various posts in Jerusalem, for almost 15 years before he was fired one day without any hearing or warning, he says.

"I worked there since May '94," he told Haaretz. "In April 2008, I was approached and told that I was no longer needed at work. They took the keys to my car, took my tag, took my phone, said 'thanks," and that was it. They said, 'After 40 days you'll get your money.' I still have all the certificates they gave me at the time proving that I was a good employee. I had no problems. I was never warned about anything."

B.M. says the reason he was given for his dismissal was that he had failed to inform his employers, in keeping with procedure, that his son had been imprisoned two and a half years earlier.

"That just isn't true," B.M. says. "I informed them before I began working. I couldn't not notify them. But assuming I didn't, when I was fired, my son was already released for a year."

Shortly after his dismissal, B.M. sued the consulate in Jerusalem District Labor Court. The court gave the consulate 60 days to respond - longer than the usual 30.

Yet six months later, at the end of October 2008, the consulate still had not responded. Judge Yaffa Stien ruled that "since the defendant didn't bother to react to the court's decision, it is justified that a ruling be given without the defense's reaction."

Stien ruled that the consulate must pay B.M. NIS 114,201 within 30 days. The consulate ignored the ruling, however, despite numerous letters from B.M.'s attorney and the collections office.

Then, in December 2010, almost two years after the ruling, the U.S. embassy wrote Israel's Foreign Affairs Ministry that it did not intend to pay the former employee the compensation - which had meanwhile swelled to NIS 158,396. Israel, the embassy wrote, "should submit a summons to court through diplomatic channels and allow at least 60 days to respond. ... Since the U.S. government did not receive due summons, and wasn't given an opportunity to defend itself, the misled ruling is null and void. The U.S. will not heed this misled ruling."

B.M.'s attorney, Bassam Asad, told Haaretz that "any other person or organization reacts to the court when sued, since that is the law. But they ignored the case completely. The court is not Jordanian. It is aware of the law. If the court had no jurisdiction [over the consulate] it wouldn't have dealt with the case."

In April 2011, a legal adviser to the Foreign Affairs Ministry launched an investigation into whether the ruling could be annulled, but, as of yet, it still stands.

Moaz Zaatri, the director of El Makdessi, a Palestinian human rights group, says his organization is putting pressure on the consulate to pay B.M. He accused the consulate of disrespecting workers and of contempt of court.

"We talked to the European Union and the International Labor Organization," says Zaatri. "In the ILO's 2012 annual report it mentioned several cases of workers' rights violations in East Jerusalem, including this case."

Attorney Tal Sapir, an expert in civilian-commercial law who has experience in judicial proceedings against embassies, told Haaretz that private lawsuits against foreign embassies are "one of the rarest cases in Israeli law. ... For years, people believed that embassies are an immune enclave, but that simply isn't true. Embassies are employers like any other, and the law applies to them as well."

Sapir cites a 1997 Israeli Supreme Court ruling which states that foreign embassies enjoy only limited immunity, and that immunity does not extend to "private" lawsuits, according to Sapir.

The Knesset also recently passed a law that outlines four conditions under which a foreign embassy may be sued in a labor court. B.M's case appears to check all four boxes.

The U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem told Haaretz that "the policy of the U.S. State Department is not to react to personal issues, such as issues being dealt with by the courts. For further information, one should turn to the Israeli court."

Emil Salman