Israeli Diplomats Say Their Hands Are Tied Because of Excessive Austerity

Israeli embassies and consulates abroad don’t even have money for train tickets or to serve coffee at work meetings, one diplomat claims

A protest by Foreign Ministry employees.
Emil Salman

Israeli embassies and consulates abroad don’t even have money for train tickets or to serve coffee at work meetings, much less paying dues to international organizations, Israeli diplomats groused recently in cables to the Foreign Ministry.

Due to the cash crunch, which stems from a cut of 350 million shekels ($98 million) to the ministry’s budget, Israeli dues payments have been suspended to around 20 international organizations, including the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the World Food Program, the UN Development Program, UNICEF, UN Women, the Council of Europe, the Union for the Mediterranean and the Anna Lindh Foundation. As a result, Israel is racking up embarrassing debts to these organizations.

For the same reason, the heads of Foreign Ministry desks have canceled work trips to areas under their responsibility, as have roving ambassadors, who are responsible for more than one country. Diplomats are even limiting travel within the countries to which they are assigned and consular services to Israelis.

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Dozens of projects have been canceled for lack of funds, including youth delegations and student exchanges with countries including China, Japan and India – three countries over which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu frequently boasts about improving ties. The shortfall may also threaten his planned trip to India prior to the Knesset election on September 17.

Cultural events and public diplomacy efforts have also been canceled, and Independence Day celebrations will depend on diplomats obtaining donations. Diplomats say they even lack basic office equipment.

The crisis has been exacerbated by an ongoing labor dispute declared by embassy and consulate employees. It was called because of the ministry’s plan to tax special payments to diplomats that the diplomats say are used to cover expenses such as home hospitality that is part of the job. The dispute has led the employees to impose sanctions, including refusing to issue tourist or work visas to Chinese and Indian nationals and passports to Israelis in Los Angeles and New York. For its part, the Finance Ministry said payments to diplomats are not being cut but the method used to reimburse them is simply being changed.

To meet with senior economic officials in the areas I serve, I have to host them, and it’s not reasonable for this money to come out of my pocket, or for it to be terribly complicated to get reimbursed,” said one senior Israeli diplomat in Asia. “After all, we bring huge sums into the state’s coffers through these meetings,” she said. This is apart from the across-the-board cuts in the ministry’s budget, she noted, even though they also affect her daily work.

In an internal cable obtained by Haaretz, one ambassador to a European country described how the cash crunch has affected his work and has damaged “Israel’s national security and interests.” Since the beginning of the year, he has been forced to cancel numerous activities “vital to promoting Israel’s diplomatic, security and economic interests,” he wrote.

We don’t have money for a train ticket” to attend an important security meeting, he noted, and embassy staff have had to pay the fare themselves. Maintaining relationships between Israeli officials and their European counterparts on crucial issues such as Iran’s nuclear and missile programs requires frequent meetings, he added.

There are no visits by parliamentarians or journalists, whether to Israel or here, because there’s no money. There’s no money to travel to [see] key contacts or to invite them for a beer.” Public diplomacy efforts at universities have been suspended because “there’s no money to rent a hall, print material or pay for a sound system for the speaker,” he continued. “In the process, we have abandoned the stage to our enemies.”

The government’s battle against the labeling of West Bank settlement products has languished because there is no money to bring over Israeli experts to make the case, he said, and tourism promotion, the battle against anti-Semitism and efforts to win votes in international organizations have also suffered.

We're like a big family living below the poverty line that doesn’t know where it will get the small amount of money it needs to keep itself alive tomorrow morning,” he lamented. And when the damage finally becomes too big for the government to ignore, he warned, “we will have to pay dozens of times over to fix it, if it isn’t already too late.”

In recent years, the Foreign Ministry has suffered repeated budget cuts, and diplomats’ status and benefits have been eroded. Some of the funding has been reallocated, to the Strategic Affairs Ministry, for example, to fund its efforts against anti-Israel boycott activity.

Foreign Ministry officials had hoped that the appointment of a foreign minister to replace Netanyahu, who held the post of foreign minister in addition to the prime minister’s portfolios for years, would improve the situation. But so far, Yisrael Katz’s recent appointment as foreign minister has made no difference.

The Foreign Ministry, Katz’s office and Netanyahu’s office all declined to comment for this article.

The Finance Ministry said the cabinet approved an across-the-board cut of 1.2 billion shekels in all ministry budgets to provide funding for new priorities, including security projects and subsidies for after-school programs.