A call for diplomatic labor relations

The country’s vital interests should plainly be placed before our diplomats’ personal demands, however valid.

Diplomats at Foreign Ministry 311 (do not publish again) (photo credit: Flash 90)
Diplomats at Foreign Ministry 311 (do not publish again)
(photo credit: Flash 90)
To get the government’s attention, one cannot behave diplomatically. That appears to be the lesson learned by 800 Foreign Ministry employees whose year-long pleas for a wage increase have largely been ignored. Since last February various labor sanctions – from showing up to work in jeans and sandals, to refusing to coordinate Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s trips this summer to Greece and the US – have had little impact.
Now a “no more mister nice guy” approach has resulted in the unfortunate cancellation of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s visit to Israel, originally slated for two weeks from now. A visit later this month by German Chancellor Angela Merkel may also be in jeopardy.
Medvedev’s would have been the first visit by a Russian president since Vladimir Putin’s trip here in 2005. Via the local Russian-language media, apparently monitored closely by Moscow, diplomats made it clear that they would not participate in preparations for the visit.
Although there were no security concerns, Russia did not want a repeat of the kind of indignity suffered in July by Bulgarian Foreign Minister Nikolay Mladenov. After a visit to Yad Vashem, Mladenov, a true friend of Israel, was left stranded by his Foreign Ministry driver. Similarly, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov arrived at Ben-Gurion International Airport this summer to find that neither a Russian flag nor a red carpet had been prepared.
It would be an exaggeration to say that the canceled Medvedev visit, which will be rescheduled, endangers our relations with Russia. Nevertheless, a number of important issues directly affecting Israeli interests were on the agenda.
Moscow laudably scrapped its sale of S-300 air-defense missiles to Iran, but its involvement in the Islamic Republic’s Bushehr nuclear reactor remains a source of concern. Moscow also seems to be moving closer to Syria: Last year, Russia’s navy chief announced that his country’s naval supply and maintenance site near Syria’s Mediterranean port of Tartus would be modernized to accommodate heavy warships after 2012. Russia also will provide Syria with its P-800 Yakhont supersonic anti-ship cruise missile which, it is feared, could fall into the hands of Hizbullah and be used against the Israeli navy.
GIVEN THE importance of face-to-face discussions on such critical issues, the Foreign Ministry workers’ demands for higher wages seem relatively marginal, and hardly justify the torpedoing of Medvedev’s visit. The country’s vital interests should plainly be placed before our diplomats’ personal demands, however valid.
But the government is also to blame for the parlous state of affairs. It ignored the workers’ pleas, prompting usually well-mannered diplomats to resort to extreme measures.
When necessary, the decision-makers evidently reasoned, the Foreign Ministry can be bypassed. After our diplomats in Greece refused to help coordinate Netanyahu’s trip there in August, the Mossad stepped in. The IDF’s procurement delegation in Washington did the same during his visit there in late summer to begin direct talks with the Palestinian Authority. A similar arrangement will ensure that Netanyahu’s trip Thursday to Cairo to meet with President Hosni Mubarak goes reasonably smoothly.
Faced with that kind of indifference, and lacking the coercive leverage of airport workers, longshoremen and their like, the diplomats felt they had little choice but to act evermore undiplomatically by a government that has consistently reacted to labor crises instead of preempting them.
But why must the government be bullied into decisions? The diplomats’ claims do not seem unfounded.
According to the workers’ committee, 12% of the 800 Foreign Ministry workers are living beneath the poverty line; 25% receive welfare supplements to boost their low salaries. For the first five years of service a Foreign Ministry employee, who must have at least a bachelor’s degree, earns a gross monthly salary of just NIS 5,000.

Those who serve abroad earn about half of what the average western diplomat receives and, incidentally, 40% less than their Iranian counterparts. Salaries have not been adjusted for two decades, resulting in a 45% lag behind comparable public sector employees. The Treasury’s offer of a 8% to 10% wage hike seems more than ungenerous.
Instead of procrastinating, as it also did with the state prosecutors and has done with other public-sector strikes, the government should have been proactive. It should have sought to avoid this debilitating, embarrassing labor action by willingly entering into productive negotiations.
Now, with important foreign visitors being forced to bypass Israel, the imperative to end the strike is overwhelming. The workers should never have been forced to behave so undiplomatically. It goes against their training.