Monday, March 24, 2014

 

A Pay Strike in Israel Stalls Premier’s Trip to Mexico

JERUSALEM — Employees of Israel’s Foreign Ministry announced an open-ended general strike on Sunday over pay and working conditions, an unprecedented step involving a complete shutdown of the ministry’s office here and the country’s 103 diplomatic missions abroad.


Disgruntled ministry employees have already been engaging in partial work stoppages or slowdowns over the past three weeks as part of a longstanding labor dispute, actions that have included refusing to coordinate visits to Israel by foreign dignitaries or visits of Israeli officials abroad.

One immediate consequence is that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Mexico, Panama and Colombia, scheduled for early April, has been postponed.

A visit to Israel by Pope Francis, planned for May, also hangs in the balance because the intricate preparations, which the Foreign Ministry would usually handle together with the Vatican, have been delayed.

The work actions and the subsequent decision to bring all diplomatic and administrative activity to a standstill were taken after talks with the Finance Ministry broke down after seven months.

“They gave us the cold shoulder,” Yigal Palmor, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, said of the Finance Ministry. “Enough is enough.”

Mr. Palmor, who is usually at the vanguard of the sometimes fraught efforts to explain Israel’s policies to the world, said he was answering his phone in an official capacity only to speak about issues related to the strike.

The full work stoppage means that no diplomatic business is being carried out and that no diplomatic cables are being sent. The doors of the ministry here have been closed to all, including the foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman. The overseas diplomatic missions have been instructed not to open on Monday. There has been no consular service for the public for weeks, other than in life-or-death cases approved by an exceptions committee, and hundreds of Israelis with passport problems are stranded abroad.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry has already lost some prestige in recent years, with the country’s most strategic and delicate relationships often being handled at least in part by other offices.

The strike, however, is over what ministry officials describe as the “extreme” financial degradation of the 1,200 employees at home and abroad. Foreign Ministry wages have been calculated on a scale different from those used for other public servants over the past 17 years, under an agreement that ministry employees say only worsened their conditions.

A post on a Facebook page created to support the strike showed a photograph of what was said to be the salary slip of a diplomat of 13 years. It showed a monthly wage of about $2,500 before taxes and other deductions.

Yacov Livneh, a spokesman for the ministry’s employees’ union, said that a third of the ministry’s employees had left the service over the past decade, adding, “They felt they could no longer fund Israel’s diplomacy from their own pockets.”

But the Finance Ministry said in a statement on Sunday that union officials had refused its proposed solutions and walked out of the arbitration process unilaterally. Noting that foreign service employees had received a 20 percent pay increase only two years ago, the Finance Ministry accused the union of “holding Israeli citizens hostage and harming the country’s vital interests.”

A two-day visit to Israel by Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain this month was arranged with the help of Mr. Netanyahu’s office. The Foreign Ministry employees’ union sent a letter to the British ambassador to Israel, Matthew Gould, protesting that he did not try to postpone Mr. Cameron’s visit in solidarity with the Israeli diplomats.
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