Israel’s diplomatic corp labor strike continues

Dissatisfied with its wages and working conditions, Israel’s diplomatic corps has been on strike for more than two weeks, and the ramifications of the labor sanctions are being felt even in Los Angeles.

“We’re in an official labor dispute. We’re doing most of our work internally right now. We can’t provide services to the community, unless it’s life-or-death matters. We’re very curtailed [in] what we can do right now,” Israel’s Consul General in Los Angeles David Siegel said in a recent interview at the local consulate. 

Tasks that the foreign ministry has not been handling under the strike include handling official visits of state leaders, issuing visas and more. Siegel could not be part of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Los Angeles earlier this month because of the strike. And on March 9, the strike prevented Siegel from appearing at the annual gala for the Israeli American Council.  

The strike, which has pitted Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs against the country’s Ministry of Finance, began on March 4. It follows a proposal made by the Israeli treasury department, which handles the country’s budget, that was considered unsatisfactory to Israel’s foreign ministry, which includes the country’s diplomats working inside the country and abroad.

It comes after seven months of negotiations between the two sides, with Yair Frommer, the head of the foreign ministry’s workers union, representing the side of the diplomats, and Yair Lapid, the Israeli minister of finance, representing the side of the treasury. Thus far, Netanyahu has opted to remain uninvolved in the dispute.  

During a visit on March 13, the local consulate’s offices, which are located in West L.A., were eerily quiet. The six windows in the consular affairs wing that typically look out onto a queue of community members waiting for notary services, certification of public documents or other services were dark. Staff members permitted to handle internal matters only — e-mails, training and office-organizing — left their neckties at home, and many wore jeans. 

“We’ve all cleaned our desks,” joked Dani Gadot, consul of consular affairs.

And, with not much else to do, they gave this reporter all the time he needed. 

The L.A.-based diplomats said that while there are several issues that the diplomatic corps would like to see addressed in any labor deal that is reached, their primary concern is with compensation, specifically pay adjustments for people serving overseas. The base salary for a consul general in North America is  $60,000.

Dana Erlich, consul for culture, media and public diplomacy, said that people serving in the corps do not earn enough to support themselves. Erlich, whose passion for Israel convinced her to put aside dreams of becoming an artist to serve in the diplomatic corps, said that the country she loves neglects its diplomats. 

“This dispute started because we [the diplomats] feel that we’re not a priority of the state,” Erlich said in an interview at her office. 

Siegel agrees that the diplomatic corps is underappreciated. He said that the body of foreign-service workers are vital to Israeli military efficiency, the country’s standing in the Diaspora and more. He pointed to the consulate’s involvement in a recent economic pact between California and Israel as evidence of his organization’s accomplishments.  

Siegel said that poor pay causes him concern about the future of the Israeli diplomatic service. 

“What is the dispute about? It’s basically about the future of the foreign service, and what kind of foreign service does Israel need. What is the vision of the foreign service? Do we believe that we need to have the most qualified people that we possibly can? … We’ve seen that less and less people want to serve in countries like North America, where salaries have not been adjusted to the cost of living for over a decade,” he said.

Part of the problem, the diplomats say, is that personality traits required for diplomats to perform well at their job — patience, congeniality and gentleness — don’t make them prime candidates for demanding better treatment.

How long the strike will continue is anybody’s guess. Siegel said he is “disheartened” that this has been happening and that it has certainly impacted his personal schedule. He typically appears at events in the Los Angeles Jewish community on a nightly basis, whether it is an event geared toward fostering relations between L.A. Jews and Latinos, a fundraiser for an Israeli university or serving as the Israeli face at a Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles gathering.

Nowadays, he has a lot more time on his hands.