Israel Cannot Afford to Underpay Its Diplomats

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As a British commentator and analyst dealing with the Middle East, I am frequently called to appear on TV news programs, often at very short notice. When a story breaks, its coverage is almost instant. Television analysts maintain a network of diplomats, politicians and other sources from a wide range of countries, who can be spoken with urgently to get official reactions and unofficial thoughts. I speak regularly with Arab, Israeli, American, European and Far Eastern diplomats and politicians, all of whom need to be available day and night to offer a sophisticated and nuanced reaction. Theirs is often a thankless task.

I was therefore surprised to read in the Israeli press of the strike by Foreign Ministry workers, the very people of whom the foreign press makes frequent and urgent demands. In protest against their paltry salaries — typically as low as $2,300 a month after 15 years of service — and other poor terms of employment, they decided to severely limit the scope of their work in order to push the Finance Ministry to negotiate fairly. Additionally, they want compensation for the spouses of diplomats who cannot find work abroad (after all, one person can scarcely be supported on their pay, never mind a married couple or a family). And they want an end to the double taxation of diplomats, a further injustice for those who aren’t being sufficiently recompensed for their demanding jobs. All this against a backdrop of an ever increasing military budget, which some argue has directly resulted in the deterioration of pay and conditions for Foreign Ministry staff. It has become so bad that intelligent and able potential future diplomats look elsewhere for career opportunities.

Such a brain drain would be bad for any country, but is disastrous for Israel. Without genuine expertise on its side in overseas diplomatic missions, Israel stands little chance of its actions being understood by the rest of the world. Detail is key: the issues we report on in the Middle East are multi-layered, but if there is no Israeli at hand who can provide instant, quality information, then news journalists will simply go elsewhere. Israel has a lot of explaining to do abroad, and needs its best people doing the explaining.

When I was called on recently by Al Jazeera to give an interview regarding the election of Hassan Rohani as Iran’s new president, I immediately called various contacts to get their official opinions and reactions. This would allow me to explain what the key players in the region made of the news. Though it was late on a Saturday night, I needed reactions immediately. Had my Israeli diplomatic sources been unavailable or unhelpful, they would have been the only ones not represented. The sophisticated needs of the 21st-century news agenda demand expert diplomats who are available at all times, and no expert in any field will work under ever-deteriorating conditions.

Yet according to reports, conditions for Foreign Ministry staff are going from bad to worse. Ten percent of Israel’s overseas foreign service postings remain vacant, and one in every three young diplomats in the ministry quits because they cannot make ends meet. From afar, it seems the Israeli government does not fully appreciate the danger of allowing its Foreign Ministry to fail in this way. Every second of coverage matters, as it will no doubt be repeated and amplified on YouTube, Twitter and in future op-eds. Every moment of every broadcast has the potential to be critical in tipping public opinion one way or the other.

International opinion has never been more important, so investment in diplomatic missions has never been more important. The U.K. is home to some of the most widely read English language news sources. For example, the left-wing British newspaper The Guardian wrote about Israel on average 2.7 times per day in 2011, according to its own figures. That is more often than Afghanistan, Syria, Greece, Iraq, Pakistan and Tunisia, in a year when these countries all suffered enormous upheavals involving the loss of thousands of lives or billions of dollars. Yet Israel’s population represents only a little over one tenth of one percent of the world’s population, and it is situated on just over one one-hundredth of one percent of the world’s total land mass. The Guardian’s content is read by around 60 million people per month, 50% of whom live outside Britain. Newspapers like The Guardian do not care if Israeli diplomats are underpaid or if their wives or husbands are out of work — they simply need urgent and informative reactions as the news unfolds. If they are covering Israel with such regularity, Israel ought to be sending its best people to the frontline to engage with them.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority has greatly increased its efforts in the diplomatic arena, pushing for recognition at the UN and working on foreign governments to bolster its efforts away from the negotiating table. Also at the UN, Iran has exploited every diplomatic avenue available to it, heading the organization’s second largest voting block and sitting on the governing boards of multiple UN agencies, from where it has a say in the allocation of billions of dollars of funds. Israel’s Finance Ministry may feel it cannot afford to sustain the costs of its Foreign Ministry, but falling behind in the world of diplomacy just as Israel’s adversaries are mastering that arena, will be a far greater price to pay. 

Jonathan Sacerdoti is a commentator and analyst based in London, U.K. He appears frequently on international news programs and lectures internationally on the Middle East.  

Israel's ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren. Credit: AFP
Foreign Ministry workers rally for better terms. Sign reads: Yair, don't extinguish the torch of diplomacy.Credit: Emil Salman

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