Think About It: Foreign Ministry blues

Over three months ago the employees of the Foreign Ministry declared a labor dispute.

By
June 16, 2013 21:36
Former foreign minister Avigdor Liberman at press conference, March 18, 2013

Liberman 370. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)

 
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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 unmanned.

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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.

While 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.

Though 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.

In March 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.

The whole 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.

Though Liberman 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 image.

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.

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