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ISRAEL: Poor diplomacy strikes foreign relations

January 10, 2011 | 10:42 pm

Israel's foreign relations are suffering these days from an outbreak of poor diplomacy. Not necessarily bad; just poor.

Ladies_tailors_strikers Foreign Ministry employees say they are just that, poor. Their basic salaries have been devalued by about 40% since last being updated in the early 1990s, and many of them rely on help from welfare services, say activists from the ministry workers' union.

The diplomats have years of experience, a stack of academic degrees and high motivation to serve. They also have families to feed and pensions to fund, and say neither is doable on their paychecks, which some revealed on a popular news site. Only an idealist or a fool would join the foreign service under these conditions, they said. Finance Ministry officials said the paychecks didn't reflect considerable extras.

Demanding a collective revision that among other things would match their salaries to those of like personnel serving in Israel's intelligence agencies and defense system, the Foreign Ministry workers' union entered a labor dispute more than six months ago. Dissatisfied with the ministry's proposals, the diplomatic staff of 830 -- 550 in Israel, 280 abroad --  went on strike several weeks ago.

They've done this before. In June, the kicked up some dust and infuriated the Estonian president after a driver abandoned his wife at a restaurant in Abu Ghosh. Later, they refused to prepare Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's visit to Washington but then relented because of the importance of the visit. They refused to prepare Netanyahu's visit to Greece in August. We'll do without you, the prime minister's office said, and got the Mossad intelligence agency to do it instead. Furious at their colleagues for breaking their picket line, ministry workers withheld expenses and other payments from Mossad personnel abroad.

No more Mr. Nice Guy. Now they're coming to work in jeans and sandals and "I'm a poor diplomat" T-shirts. Their actions have gradually expanded to paralyze work altogether. 

Memos, position papers and various services are withheld from all but Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Except for special allowances like a recent coordination of passage for a navy vessel, services are being withheld from the prime minister's office, government ministries, the Mossad, the Shin Bet intelligence service, the army and parliament. Diplomatic missions abroad have been instructed to apologize to their hosts for potential damage to bilateral relations but cancel all meetings and cut off contacts. Israelis abroad can't renew passports. Applications for tourist and business languish unprocessed.

Some of the damage being caused by the strike is invisible, like in the intelligence department, for example. Disruption of diplomatic mail means sensitive materials are either compromised by regular mail, or just never sent to intelligence personnel abroad. Other fallout is more high-profile, as visits from heads of state and dignitaries are postponed at a time when Israel needs all the diplomatic help it can get in many fields. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the strike was causing "strategic damage to Israel's foreign relations"; workers contend that it is the treasury's position that undermines the country's foreign relations.

Here's a partial list of the casualties:

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev canceled his visit to Israel after staff refused to prepare for the visit and threatened to ruin it. President Shimon Peres apologized profusely. Foreign Minister Lieberman was furious, having marked tightening relations with Russia a pillar of his foreign policy efforts. Medvedev's intention of keeping the Palestinian leg of his trip is now in danger too, as Foreign Ministry officials rejected the Russian Embassy's request for assistance in coordinating crossing over the Allenby Bridge with Israel's police and Shin Bet.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is slated to come to Israel next month with a delegation of Cabinet ministers to attend the annual joint Israeli-German Cabinet session. Israel's request for a subsidized defense package including a sixth submarine and two warships was turned down by Germany last summer but could come up again, if Merkel's visit isn't canceled.

The visits of Croatian and Slovenian prime ministers are also likely to be called off and the fate of the Norwegian foreign minister's plans remains unknown. Israel's own ministers are forced to cancel trips; for example, Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon scrapped a visit to Sri Lanka. Israeli exporters might still be able to tap into that rapidly growing economy, but not this week.

Also called off was the visit of the commander of U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon, Alberto Asarta Cuevas, scheduled to come next week with U.N. Special Coordinator to Lebanon Michael Williams to discuss plans for Israel's withdrawal from the northern part of the divided village Ghajar. The still-expected conclusions of the special tribunal investigating the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri were also to have been on the agenda.

Strikes are not uncommon in Israel. Some are seasonal recurrences, timed to inflict maximum damage: strikes by passport processors before holidays, airport staff during holidays, teachers at the end of summer vacation. It took the intervention of the prime minister's office to end the recent 43-day strike of state prosecutors, which put bad guys back on the streets and wrecked havoc on Israel's legal system. By the time Israeli port workers went on strike last week, everyone was much smarter, and a wage settlement was reached within three days. It's probably the $17-million price tag that comes with every day of that strike that did it.

Now the trick is to calculate the costs of poor diplomacy.

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem

Photo: Tailors go on strike in New York in 1910. Credit: Wikimedia Commons