Persona Non Grata

When Yair Lapid became Israel’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, there was an expectation, at least among his supporters on the left, that it would herald a new era within the ministry. During the Netanyahu years, it had been underappreciated, underfunded, shunted to the side; a Foreign Ministry in more than one sense of the word, being an almost foreign entity to the Prime Minister.

Netanyahu prided himself on his prowess in foreign affairs, but when it came to the ministry his diplomatic skills were notably absent. A well-funded, powerful Foreign Ministry, especially when it was heavily staffed with those of the leftist persuasion, did not fit in with his style of personal diplomacy. And his conspicuous coziness with such right-wing leaders as Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban sent Israel’s diplomats into conniptions.

Lapid, on the other hand, ought to have no problem with the worldview of the diplomatic corps; a visit to Brasilia or Budapest isn’t presently on his itinerary.

Yet he has shown no interest in establishing a working relationship with ministry personnel or exhibit real concern for the problems of the thousands of ordinary people who staff Israel’s 107 diplomatic missions around the world.

But if he thought that he could somehow ignore the seething anger of the ministry personnel at their mistreatment while he jets about, bumping elbows with his fellow luminaries in Washington, Paris, Geneva, Rabat and Abu Dhabi, the Foreign Ministry Workers Union has sent him a message, letting him know otherwise.

On Sunday morning (a workday in Israel), they hoisted a black flag up the ministry’s flagpole to clue Lapid in on how to color their mood, and to threaten a strike if their grievances aren’t addressed with alacrity. Dozens of employees stood outside the ministry building in Yerushalayim with signs bearing slogans such as “Don’t rely on us” and “You can’t pay for groceries with patriotism.”

The union members are not demanding a pay raise, although the one the government agreed to in 2017 has, they say, been effectively nullified by failure to cover official expenses.

But they do want compensation for the many overtime hours they put in, particularly during the pandemic, as they deal with myriad requests to enter Israel. Union members stopped working past regular hours as of last week to protest not being paid overtime. Then too there is an ongoing issue of long delays in scheduled promotions, among other issues.

If the consular person in New York or Miami that you’ve been waiting so long to speak with seems a tad grumpy, this could be a reason for it.

The consequences of a disgruntled foreign service are not trivial. The union claims that when Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov canceled his trip to Israel last month, officially for personal reasons, the real reason was because they refused to handle the visit. It’s happened before, as in the cancellation of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s planned visit to Israel in 2011.

In March 2014 and October 2019, embassies shut down in strike actions over the inexplicable tightfistedness of the Finance Ministry. In the latter case, diplomatic staff complained they did not have money for coffee or flights to their postings. A state comptroller’s report that year substantiated stories about rodents in the ambassador’s residence in Nigeria and that the envoy to Brazil slept on a mattress on the floor.

Yet, they are on the spot every time an Israeli is in trouble, whether it’s a missing hiker in the Andes or a traveler snatched up and thrown into jail on some flimsy pretext in Turkey or Russia. The families are contacted, rescue and legal efforts are mounted, special flights home are arranged. The senior officials, including the Foreign Minister, may make a phone call or two (Netanyahu personally escorted a detainee home from Moscow), but most of the work is done by obscure workers at the Foreign Ministry.

It’s unconscionable that the people who perform such vital services should not be properly compensated.

One thing Lapid can’t claim is that he didn’t know about the situation. Last July, he gave a speech lauding the diplomats, even going so far as to blame the rise in global antisemitism and anti-Israel activities on the neglect of the Foreign Ministry.

Needless to say, the ineffectiveness of the Israeli Foreign Ministry is not the reason for the hatred. The reason goes much deeper and is far more intractable. It goes back to a much older “labor dispute” over the division of material and spiritual labor in the world, and no increase in budget or esteem at the Foreign Ministry will resolve it.

In the meantime, unless he starts to make good on his promises, Yair Lapid will be, to borrow the terminology of diplomacy, persona non grata at his own ministry. If he isn’t already.