Over three months ago the employees of the Foreign Ministry declared a labor
dispute. This has manifested itself in, among other things, a refusal to make
the necessary arrangements for official visits of ministers and government
delegations abroad, to issue diplomatic passports to those entitled to them, and
to dispatch and circulate cables on professional issues.
On the formal
level the dispute is about the pay and service conditions of the diplomats and
administrative employees of the ministry abroad. In recent years there has been
an erosion in these conditions, which means that service abroad has become
increasingly unattractive in financial terms, and as a result there are
currently 50 positions in Israel’s diplomatic representations abroad that remain
This is but the tip of the iceberg. The ministry’s problems are
as old as the ministry itself, and have so many layers that only an archeologist
could uncover them.
Because of Israel’s very complicated security
situation, the ministry was never the initiator of policy connected with issues
of war and peace, and in the best of times was involved in policy making
regarding these spheres only on their margins. In other words, even in its
heyday, the ministry was usually involved in explaining the policy determined by
the prime minister and defense minister, rather than making it.
this particular situation is quite unique to Israel, another serious issue has
been political appointments to especially attractive diplomatic positions
abroad. Although this is a common practice in other countries as well, and there
is nothing wrong with it on principle, unfortunately in Israel some of these
appointments have been unworthy, and even scandalous, which has created an
understandable bitterness among Israel’s senior diplomats.
Over the years
the State Comptroller has addressed the issue of political appointments as well
as other troubling issues concerning manpower in the foreign service, terms of
service, and the actual mission and structure of the ministry.
efforts were made in the past to deal with problems raised by the State
Comptroller, these efforts usually involved technical matters rather than
essence, and never involved an attempt to deal with the root of the problem, or
to revamp the ministry. This has led many to conclude that the only solution is
to enact a Foreign Service Law, such as that which exists in several other
countries. So far, none of the bills proposed – whether by the ministry itself,
or by MKs, has gotten anywhere.
The formation of Binyamin Netanyahu’s
second government in 2009 and the appointment of Avigdor Liberman as foreign
minister, further aggravated the situation.
Liberman never concealed his
contempt for the ministry, which he depicts as a left-wing bastion, even though
since the political upheaval of 1977 this description has very little
foundation. Even before the upheaval there were many more security-minded
Mapainiks in the ministry than “bleeding-heart” liberals.
In July 2009,
three and a half months after Liberman was appointed foreign minister, a website
run by Michael Falkov – a journalist close to him – opened a vicious campaign
besmirching ministry employees on personal moral grounds. Liberman was not
directly involved in this manifestation of yellow journalism, but never missed
an opportunity to attack the employees on professional grounds.
2010 he took advantage of the annual conference of Israeli ambassadors to
reprimand the 150 or so diplomats present for their tendency, in his opinion, to
overly placate their host nations, and not to do enough to defend the
government’s policy, or to uphold the state’s honor. Besides the problem of
attacking the employees of his own ministry in public, Liberman added insult to
injury by not allowing them to react or defend themselves.
situation was further complicated by Liberman’s tendency to make foreign policy
statements not coordinated with Netanyahu, such as regarding Israel’s official
attitude to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (Liberman called him a
terrorist, while the prime minister never rejected him as a negotiating
partner), which meant that Israel’s diplomats were never sure what line they
were expected to follow abroad.
The fact that Liberman very soon turned
into a persona non grata in the US and Western Europe, and seemed to be striving
to replace the US with Russia as Israel’s main diplomatic partner, despite the
total absurdity of such a goal, only made things worse.
is currently not in the government, the ministry is being kept without a
minister so that if and when he is exonerated in court of the charges against
him, he will be able to return. In the meantime Netanyahu is formally foreign
minister, and even though he is not as openly hostile to the ministry in verbal
terms, he is certainly not one of its fans. Many believe his real goal is to
dismantle the ministry in its current form, and build a new ministry in his own
Among moves he has taken that are regarded as proof of this, have
been his habit to appoint personal emissaries to deal with issues that are
within the frame of reference of the ministry (such as trying to mend Israel’s
botched relations with Turkey, or finding an African country willing to accept
Eritrean refugees/labor migrants, which Israel wants to banish “elegantly”), his
decision to create a new “international relations” ministry under Yuval
Steinitz, and using the IDF and the intelligence services to organize his recent
trip to Poland, thus circumventing the ministry’s sanctions and “breaking the
strike,” so to speak.
As to the financial issues raised by the employees
of the ministry, the government’s official reaction, as expressed by a
relatively junior, poker-faced official from the Finance Ministry sent to the
Knesset last Tuesday to present the ministry’s position at two separate meetings
held on the issue in the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, and the Labor,
Welfare and Health Committee, is that “we are currently cutting salaries in the
public service [sector], so this is not a good time to deal with salary demands
from any quarter.”
The impression one gets listening to what is being
said is that we are witnessing a dialogue between the deaf, with the employees
becoming increasingly cynical and radical, and the government simply not really
saying anything substantial.
Though dividing the actors in this play into
villains and saints is overly simplistic, the leaders of the Foreign Ministry’s
employee labor union might be accused of excessive radicalization of their
struggle, and while the problem of diplomats having to defend a policy which
they object to ideologically should not be belittled, there can be no doubt that
the current situation is extremely damaging to Israel, whose diplomatic
situation isn’t brilliant in any case. At the same time it is highly disturbing
that those who have the power to act, and deal with the real burning issues,
don’t seem to give a damn.The writer is a retired Knesset employee.