End the strike!

Israel cannot afford to shutter its embassies and consulates at this sensitive time.

Signs around the Israeli Embassy in Washington (photo credit: ISRAELI EMBASSY IN WASHINGTON)
Signs around the Israeli Embassy in Washington
Israeli embassies and consulates worldwide shuttered their gates on Wednesday, in the latest chapter in the years-long saga of a work dispute between the Finance Ministry and Foreign Ministry workers.
“Strike! The Embassy of Israel in Washington is closed! There will be no entry to the embassy or work conducted in it!” read a sign on the fence outside the Israeli Embassy to the US.
The Foreign Ministry workers are accusing the Finance Ministry of harming Israel’s “vital interests.”
The latest dispute comes after the Finance Ministry decided in January to have reimbursement for expenses incurred abroad be considered part of the workers’ salary and taxed at a rate of 40%. The Treasury had reversed course in July and workers were fully reimbursed, but  then recently changed its mind again, sparking the strike.
Each side in the dispute has blamed the other. The Finance Ministry said Foreign Ministry employees are not above the law and must pay taxes like anyone else – and by not doing so, they are “harming essential services.”
The Foreign Ministry workers said the Finance Ministry was “breaching longstanding agreements” and engaged in “ongoing disruption of the vital diplomatic tools of the State of Israel.”
The truth is, both sides are right, from their perspectives.
The Finance Ministry is dealing with a deficit that grows deeper every day, exacerbated by having two elections in one year and the lack of a government to pass a new budget and make decisions.
An interim government doesn’t want to raise taxes when the specter of an election remains, so the response to the economic situation has been to cut ministry budgets and find other ways to pinch pennies, like taxing workers’ expenses.
But Foreign Ministry services, both consular and diplomatic, are indeed vital to the State of Israel.
And now is an especially challenging time for Israel, with unrest in Lebanon, continued violence in Syria with a hostile Turkey taking a greater role, and an increasingly emboldened Iran continuing to threaten Israel. The US is pulling back from its leadership role in the world, including the Middle East, which weakens Israel. Even promises from US President Donald Trump are not worth as much as they may have been before he was mired in an impeachment process.
So this is not a good time for our diplomats to be out of commission.
But even in the best of times, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu justifiably boasts about growing Israel’s ties with governments around the world, those leader-to-leader connections are not worth much without diplomats doing the groundwork in those countries.
Netanyahu is a talented statesman and has successfully led Israel through turbulent times, but Israeli professional diplomats are needed to make sure that the affinity lasts after an election – and goes beyond the president or prime minister of either country, to strong ties with parliamentarians and civil society organizations.  
Israel’s dedicated diplomats are sent to places around the world, many of which are less developed than Israel. The prime minister and foreign minister don’t travel to ever country with which Israel has diplomatic ties. Maintaining those daily relations are up to the professionals.
These places are difficult enough for anyone to live in, but in some cases, even more difficult for Jews. They bring their families with them; spouses put their careers on hold and children switch schools every few years. They make these sacrifices for the benefit of Israel and its citizens.
But we cannot expect our diplomats to be total altruists.
They sacrifice enough for the country and contribute greatly, and should not be penalized for doing so and pushed into a financial situation that grows more untenable for them every year.
The current strike must be brought to a close as soon as possible, and the Finance Ministry needs to show more understanding and flexibility in light of the Foreign Ministry workers’ unique situation.
Israel cannot afford to shutter its embassies and consulates at this sensitive time.