Dear Ambassador, Please Babysit My Child Abroad

To what extent is the state responsible for the safety of its citizens while traveling abroad?

"Why aren't you sending planes to evacuate Israeli tourists from Thailand? What are you waiting for?" asked a frantic caller to the Foreign Ministry's situation room Tuesday, following the Thai government's declaration of a state of emergency in the capital, Bangkok.

Foreign Ministry officials were not alarmed by the hysterical calls about the safety of Israelis in Thailand. Only a day before, they had been flooded with callers asking the ministry to evacuate Israelis from New Orleans in light of the approaching Hurricane Gustav.

Such incidents illustrate a subject that has been hotly debated in the Foreign Ministry's corridors and offices in recent months: To what extent is the state responsible for its citizens' safety abroad?

It is doubtful whether any other country's diplomats invest as much time and effort in tending to the problems of individual citizens overseas as Israeli diplomats do. For example, Israel chartered three planes to evacuate 500 Israelis from Georgia during the latter's war with Russia. None of the Israelis were asked to pay for the flight, and some were even reimbursed by their original carriers. In comparison, the United States chartered buses to evacuate its civilians from Georgia and charged every passenger tens of dollars for the service.

The successful evacuation of Israelis from Georgia brought much praise to the Foreign Ministry, but also raised the issue of the limits of the state's responsibilities. In retrospect, Foreign Ministry officials said, the evacuation of Georgia was justified. Yet they recognize that a problem does exist. "We've turned into the babysitters of Israelis abroad," Israel's consul in Madrid recently said.

Last week, a well-known member of Knesset called the ministry's situation room and asked for assistance in bringing back Israelis who were "stranded" in Lithuania. When ministry officials asked him to elaborate on their situation, he responded that they could not come back because their airline had gone bankrupt.

"Sir, why don't they just buy tickets from another airline?" one official asked the MK. "And who will pay for them?" he replied, confounding the ministry staff, who did not know whether to laugh or cry.

Another incident that demonstrates the chutzpah of the ordinary Israeli occurred a few months ago in Spain. The local Israeli embassy organized a helicopter to airlift an Israeli backpacker injured during a trek in a mountainous area. Moments after he arrived safely at the hospital, his mother called the consul and asked him to send the helicopter back to where her son was picked up, because he had forgotten his backpack.

An Israeli envoy in Turkey recently received a phone call from an Israeli tourist who demanded that the state pay him $200 for medical treatment to remove a bone that got stuck in his throat during dinner. "What am I paying taxes for?" the man fumed after his request was rejected.

In light of such absurdities, some senior Foreign Ministry officials are calling for the state to draft a formal policy concerning Israelis abroad and the state's responsibilities toward them.