Where Is the Moral Conscience of Israel's Diplomats?

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Illustration: Graffiti by Banksy on the separation wall near Bethlehem.Credit: Nir Kafri

Despite the headline-making prominence that the Israeli Ministry for Foreign Affairs’ strike has achieved this week, there is little sense even within the strikers' social and professional milieu of support or sympathy for their action, despite some murmurs from concerned Diaspora Jews.

Why not? Surely not because the diplomats are deliberately making life difficult for innocent travelers and for foreign officials visiting Israel. That's the idea of a strike. Other strikers – on the trains, on the planes, in the schools – make more peoples' lives more difficult, yet they get support and sympathy, at least from their friends and colleagues, for their "struggle," their "battle" and other such admiring metaphors.

And after all, no-one thinks the diplomats get too much money. They deserve more.
The trouble begins when their spokesmen complain volubly about their low pay "despite our manning of the front lines 24/7."That metaphor brings them no respect at all. Nor should it.

"Manning the front lines" means disseminating the government's position, most especially on peace and the occupation, the issues that the world cares about. But the closer one is to the "front lines" and the closer one is to the diplomat in question the truth becomes more and more inescapable. The diplomat does not believe the line he is required to put out. For him, as for his friends, it does not explain 50 years of occupation nor Israel's ongoing failure or refusal to end the occupation at last.

Now here's the point. If the recent history of the foreign service was studded with strikes, called by the works committee or staged by individuals and small groups, not over salaries and expenses but over policies, then the current strike over money would attract more support, and the strikers more respect, from the peace camp (albeit more repugnance from the right). Strikes over peace and principles needn't harass ordinary travelers and citizens. They just need to make headlines. "Front-line fighters" can get people thinking, but only if they protect their honor.

It is a stain of dishonor that no members of the foreign service have seen fit to stand up and challenge policies that they know better than anyone are leading Israel to international leprosy and domestic disaster. (Ilan Baruch, a veteran diplomat who resigned in 2011 over government policy on the West Bank, is an honorable exception.) The principle that guides the consciences of our diplomats is pusillanimity when their careers are at stake. But what is at stake here is the future of the nation.

Contentions of this kind are often gainsaid on the grounds that a senior civil servant's code of behavior is based not on regular labor law but on a contract of national responsibility between the state and its employee. This argument, though, has somehow frozen in Israel instead of developing along the lines of what the British called 'Vansittartism.'

Sir Robert Vansittart was a permanent under-secretary in the foreign office during the 1930s. He did his best to be a thorn in the side of Chamberlain's appeasement policy, articulating his views and warnings on German militarism without inhibition.

Far from being punished as too outspoken, he was raised to the peerage (at Churchill's recommendation) and his name and story effectively changed the norms of the British civil service.

There is no analogy intended here with Nazi Germany and its designs on Britain and Europe. Still, the threat facing Israel – in the eyes of many of its own diplomats – is dangerous and existential. It needs to be ventilated now rather than at the last moment. Awkward, infuriating strikes are effective means, like it or not, of forcing issues on the public's agenda. Our professional diplomats need to consider these sobering concerns.

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