Benjamin Peim, David Rosenberg
The Media Line
January 6, 2011 - 1:00am

Everyone from the president of Russia to Filipino guest workers and new immigrants is being blocked from entering Israel as a work slowdown by the country’s diplomatic corps enters its 11th day.

Foreign Ministry employees have stopped arranging official visits and processing visas for immigrants and foreign workers, and have stopped working with other branches of the government, said Amir Sagie, a member of the union’s negotiating team. The diplomats are coming to their offices and embassies, but they have shed their suits and ties for jeans and sneakers, he said.

“Almost every day we add more actions as part of the struggle to advance our working conditions,” Sagie, who is deputy director of the ministry’s arms control department, told The Media Line on Thursday. “This morning, we gave orders to workers not to have contact with the foreign ministries of other countries.”

The slowdown began last summer, as wage talks between the diplomatic corps union and the Foreign Ministry became deadlocked, and have grown more severe as the months go by. The latest escalation went into effect December 27 and caused Israel a major diplomatic embarrassment this week when Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s president, was forced to cancel a rare visit to Israel January 16-19.

The diplomats’ slowdown deprives Israel of a voice in international affairs at a time when it is contending a host of sensitive issues as well as increasingly hostile world public opinion. Medvedev won’t be visiting Israel on his trip, but he will be meeting with Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas and Jordan’s King Abdullah.

The sanctions have led to a host of other diplomatic problems. Official visits to Israel from Slovenia and Croatia have been postponed. Another official visit from Norway scheduled within the next two weeks may have to be put off, as well, Sagie said. German Chancellor Angela Merkel may have to delay a visit to Israel scheduled for the end of January, unless the slowdown is ended.

Back in September, when the slowdown was less severe, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s trip to Greece was organized by the Mossad instead the Foreign Ministry.

Israel’s most critical foreign-policy issues – relations with the U.S. and with the PA – are traditionally handled by the Prime Minister’s Office. Indeed, Netanyahu flew to Sharm el-Sheikh Thursday to meet Egyptian President Husni Mubarak for discussions on how to promote peace talks, and prevent terror and weapons smuggling into the Gaza Strip. But the Foreign Ministry and its 900 diplomats and officials play a critical role.

“If a strike is leading to the cancellation of a visit by the Russian president, that’s a pretty serious matter,” Dore Gold, the president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and a former ambassador to the United Nations, told The Media Line. “The year 2011 is exceptionally critical for Israeli diplomacy.”

Since talks with Israel broke down in September, the Palestinians have been engaged in a campaign to have their state recognized without Israeli consent and have convinced a handful of South American countries. Israel has taken a leading role in the campaign to block Iran from developing its nuclear capabilities, which Jerusalem and the West say is aimed at building weapons.

Lebanon is growing tense as the United Nations-led investigation into the 2005 assassination of then Prime Minister Sa’ad Hariri readies an indictment, which is widely expected to point the finger at the Shiite Hizbullah organization. Israel has expressed concern that Hizbullah may provoke Israel into another war, as it did in 2006.

“In order for Israel to be prepared should Hizbullah decide to escalate, you need your Foreign Ministry operating in an optimal manner, particularly if any kind of military escalation occurs,” said Gold.

At the Foreign Ministry, however, most of the staff’s thoughts are directed toward how to get through the month on their salaries.

Salaries are set according to a framework established in 1993. Since then, the union contends, the table hasn’t been adequately adjusted for inflation, which rose 114% in the past 17 years while pay rise 64%. Sagie said that a starting base salary is 4,000 shekels ($1,124) a month, which typically reaches 5,500 shekels after overtime and government-paid travel expenses are added.

Sagie, 43, who has worked for the Foreign Ministry for 13 years, including two four-year stints in Portugal and China, said he makes around 7,000 shekels a month. About 12.5% of the Foreign Ministry’s staff earns so little that they fall under the official poverty line of 4,800 shekels for a family of four, he said.

Israelis dream of working in Israel on a U.S. salary, but Israeli diplomats sent to America have the reverse, Joel Lion, consul for media affairs at the Israeli consulate in New York, told The Media Line: They live on Israeli salaries in America. When Netanyahu spoke in New York recently, Lion said he had to take the subway to the Netanyahu speech because he could not get reimbursed for taking a taxi.

“You can’t starve them because they want to serve their country. We don’t want to be rich, we just want to survive,” Sagie said. “The people that do the same work as us in the defense ministry get 50% more.”

The Finance Ministry said in a statement that it had agreed with the Foreign Ministry’s administration – but not with the union – to award the diplomatic corps a 4% pay raise on top of 6.25% being given too all civil servants. It has also offered an allowance for employees working abroad as well as tax breaks.

Sagie said the Finance Ministry’s package is worth about five million shekels, about a third the value of the increases the union is demanding.


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