If you’ve ever had to visit an embassy at home or overseas, you know the services the consular officials there provide can be indispensable. But if you need Israel’s consular services right now, you’re out of luck.
For the first time in Israel’s history, the country’s diplomats are on strike all around the world, and it's been going on for a week.
So what happens when diplomats stop going to work?
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had to cancel an historic trip to Latin America because diplomats refused to coordinate logistics. About a fourth of this year’s planned diplomatic visits to Israel have already been cancelled or postponed. The pope himself may have to cancel his visit in May.
Meanwhile, Israeli diplomats aren’t sending diplomatic cables to Israeli intelligence and defense agencies, and the world’s largest Passover meal, in Nepal, may be called off because Israeli diplomats refuse to provide the kosher food.
An all-out diplomatic strike is not a very diplomatic thing to do.
“We feel it goes against our natural inclination,” says Galit Baram, an Israeli diplomat based in Jerusalem. “But we don’t have any other chance. These are the tools we have in order to bring the Ministry of Finance to the negotiating table and to try to find a solution to this crisis.”
The strike is over wages. The starting salary for an Israeli diplomat is only about $1,700 a month, Baram says, and diplomats haven’t had a cost of living increase in over a decade.
“Diplomats abroad not only have low wages. Many have to rely on their parents for financial support, which is ludicrous,” Baram says. “We’re talking about diplomats who represent their country and they do it exceptionally well. And they have to rely on their parents as if they are teenagers or college students. This is unheard of in other foreign ministries.”
But there's not a lot of sympathy in Israel for jet-setting diplomats who get to work in exotic locations and wine and dine people for a living. But Baram says diplomats are more like soldiers, Israel’s defenders on the front lines, living under threat of terrorism and violence.
“We want to be respected, we want to be appreciated and recognized as an integral and important part of Israel’s security system,” she says. “While the military pillar in Israel is respected and revered and very generously financed, the diplomatic pillar has been neglected for many years. Our work is sometimes taken for granted.”
Yehuda Yaakov, Israel’s new consul general in New England, based in Boston, says he was “very surprised to see that the head of the Mossad (the Israeli equivalent of the CIA) complained” about the diplomats’ strike.
“It’s very ironic, because last year the Israeli Foreign Ministry got Hezbollah on the European Union’s terror list,” Yaakov said. “Instead of complaining, he should thank us for the work we are doing.”
Yaakov said he received a Foreign Ministry award of excellence in 2012 for, as he put it, “intensive and coordinated activities for curbing the Iranian nuclear program.”
But then he added: “I can’t expand on that.”
That could be one of the problems diplomats have in fighting for more recognition and higher pay: they can’t be openly recognized for some of the work they do.
Baram, for instance, directs the Foreign Ministry’s department on Palestinian affairs and regional cooperation. How has the diplomatic strike affected Palestinian affairs and regional cooperation, she was asked?