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Israel’s Diplomacy Strike Wreaks Havoc in Jerusalem, and It’s Getting Worse

For the past three months, the country’s foreign ministry, gutted of its powers by political agreements, has been in disarray

Liel Leibovitz
June 20, 2013

When the government refused to adjust their incomes to suit the standard of living in the countries to which they were posted, the employees of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said nothing, vowing to soldier on. When the Treasury denied a request to compensate their spouses for the financial losses they had suffered by abandoning their careers, packing up, and settling down in remote corners of the world, all in Israel’s interest, the diplomats stiffened their upper lips. But when a political reshuffle, following the elections earlier this year, stripped the ministry of most of its powers, the men and women who inhabit Jerusalem’s equivalent of Foggy Bottom did something decidedly undiplomatic: They went to war.

The cables were the first casualty. Late in March, the torrent of correspondence that is the ministry’s lifeblood slowed to a trickle, then stopped. This meant that a major source of political and economic information, on which many other government agencies rely, was no longer available. The ministry’s 1,200 employees hoped that this silent treatment would be enough. When they did speak, they protested the new Ministry of Foreign Relations, a political Frankenstein’s monster cobbled together in order to satisfy Yuval Steinitz, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s loyal former secretary of the Treasury. The Ministry of Foreign Relations, said the men and women of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was a “needless and wasteful” creation.

But the diplomatic doppelganger wasn’t the only predator in town. To appease Tzipi Livini, the new minister of Justice and a key partner of his coalition, Netanyahu deputized her as his chief negotiator, stealing another bit of thunder away from the foreign ministry. The prime minister also rewarded Naftali Bennett, head of the powerful national religious party Ha’Bayit Ha’Yehudi, with control of separate new government bodies in charge of relations with the Jewish Diaspora and hasbara. These, too, were snatched from the foreign ministry’s plate.

Normally, such wholesale chopping up of a central government agency would have been opposed by the minister in charge, but here, too, Israel’s diplomats were out of luck: The post was previously held by Avigdor Lieberman, who had to relinquish it due to a criminal investigation currently conducted against him. Rather than appoint someone else, upon Lieberman’s forced departure last year, Netanyahu—eager to nourish his partnership with the man whose Yisrael Beiteinu party he had recently merged with his own Likud—appointed one of his loyalists, a member of Knesset named Zev Elkin, as a deputy minister of Foreign Affairs, an interim caretaker entrusted with holding the fort until Lieberman shook off his legal woes and was able to reclaim his throne.

With little clout and much loyalty to his patron, Elkin did little to stop the restructuring that had left his ministry with nothing more than a cleaned-out carcass. After a few weeks of cable silence, the employees took their struggle to the next phase.

“A new dress code in Jerusalem,” ordered a fiery memo in early May, written in the customary diplomatic shorthand. “Jeans, T-shirts, and sneakers or sandals.” For one of the solitary bastions of suits and ties in Israel to so disrobe, the diplomats hoped, would be shocking enough to force the government into reconsidering its budget and paying them what they felt were their dues. In case their sartorial protest was too subtle, however, they also ordered a complete ban on any contact with the new Ministry of Foreign Relations, as well as a stop to all logistical assistance to Israeli ministers traveling abroad on official business.

The timing wasn’t random: Yair Lapid, the incoming secretary of the Treasury, was slated to embark on his first international visit in his new post and was now forced, like all other ministers, to make the considerably burdensome arrangements concerning flights, transportation, accommodations, security, etc., on his own. Netanyahu was unamused: With a trip to Poland looming on the horizon, he channeled his inner Reagan and sought to break the powerful union by contracting out their duties, in this case the Israel Defense Forces’ attaché in Warsaw. Livid, the foreign ministry escalated its campaign. It wrote to the IDF chief of staff and demanded that he order the attaché not to cross the picket line. It also wrote to the Polish deputy foreign minister and informed him of the strike and its consequences. Soon, the showdown became front-page news.

All this was enough for the General Security Service to call it quits. Also known as the Shabak, Israel’s secret service was flustered by the foreign ministry’s strike: The GSS, after all, was the agency entrusted with protecting every official Israeli mission abroad, and the lack of logistical support seriously strained the organization’s ability to do its job. With that, a bigwig in the service published a memo early in June, informing various government ministries that the GSS would no longer protect outbound delegations. With qualifiers for the 2016 Olympics in full swing, and with Israeli teams headed out to competitions around the world, the Ministry of Culture and Sport protested the decision, demanding protection. When the GSS refused to budge, the ministry, in some cases, hired private security guards to accompany its athletes abroad.

Earlier this week, the Treasury, taking the hard line, ordered a host of economic sanctions against the striking diplomats, instructing that their pay be further cut. In retaliation, the foreign ministry announced that it would not only bring to a halt all visits of Israeli dignitaries abroad, but also curtail visits of foreign dignitaries to Israel. The strike now enters its third month, with no sign of abating. It’s high noon in Jerusalem.


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Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One.

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