A year of negotiations and seven months of mediation supervised by a former labor court judge have yielded no results in the Foreign Service labor dispute.
On one side of the negotiations is a group of young Finance Ministry officials well-versed in neoconservative micro- and macro-economic theories who may have an eye on making the transition to lucrative private sector jobs.
On the other side of the negotiating table are some 1,200 Foreign Ministry diplomats based in Israel and abroad, most of whom are idealistic and motivated and who chose the diplomatic calling out of a desire to serve and protect a Jewish state that is forced to cope with constant and disproportionately high levels of animosity from countries, non-state actors, terrorist groups, Islamists, extremists on the Left and on the Right and assorted boycott, divestment and sanctions activists. There are also another 1,100 Israelis employed in various non-diplomatic functions from security to administration who are exposed to the same tensions and dangers of representing Israel abroad.
The worldviews, motivations and interests of these two groups are radically different. And since it appears that the Finance Ministry officials have little respect or appreciation for our Foreign Service personnel, it should come as no surprise that during all the time that mediation and negotiations have dragged on, no substantial dialogue or communication has taken place.
Meanwhile, the plight of our Foreign Service personnel has become increasingly unbearable. For over a decade now, the salaries of these dedicated people have not been adjusted in the respective countries in which they serve to compensate for inflation. In Israel the starting salary is NIS 5,000 to NIS 6,000 a month. After 15 years of experience and a master’s degree, the average salary rises to just NIS 9,000.
Diplomats must nevertheless pay from this steadily shrinking salary for all the expenses of living abroad, from childcare which is not covered by the Foreign Ministry for kids under 3 to travel expenses when short trips are made back to Israel for family occasions.
The spouses of diplomats must essentially sacrifice – or at the very least subordinate – their own careers for the sake of the diplomat’s. These spouses are forced to find whatever job they can for the duration of a few years in a foreign country where they may or may not know the local language and they may or may not be able to utilize their training and education. They must then pick up and move on and start the whole process again. Family pension savings are inevitably hurt. There is currently no mechanism in place to compensate the diplomat’s family for this economic loss, which is estimated at around NIS 5 million to NIS 7m. over a lifetime.
And both the diplomats and their families must cope with the pressures of representing the Jewish state abroad. Not only must children and spouses deal with moving around frequently, there is also the added stress of living with constant security concerns. As one diplomatic put it, “every morning you wake up and begin a battery of security checks to make sure your car is not booby-trapped, you are not about to be ambushed and your children are not exposed to anti-Israeli sentiments in school.” In non-Western countries there is often the added worry of dangerously high pollution levels and low public health standards. A high percentage of children of diplomats suffer from psychological disorders.
It should come as no surprise that one-third of entry-level diplomats have opted to take their skills elsewhere. And some senior diplomats, many of whom are polyglots, are taking their advanced university degrees, international management and public relations experience to the private sector as well.
So far, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman has given mediation and negotiations a chance. But the time has come for direct intervention.
The 22nd anniversary of the March 17 suicide bombing attack on the building of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires – the deadliest terrorist attack on an Israeli diplomatic mission ever – presents an opportunity to give much-deserved appreciation to the Foreign Service personnel. The best way to do this is to update salaries in the Foreign Ministry, provide economic compensation to the spouses of diplomats and take steps to lift the trampled morale of Foreign Service workers.