January 19, 2011

Israel's diplomatic service is out of service, and it shows

Israelis have a tradition of claiming the world doesn't accept a Jewish State, but the current reality is the other way around. And it's starting to produce real consequences. The cause is a strike by Israel's career diplomats, whose compensation is... pathetic. It's not even on a par with employees of the Defense Ministry or the Mossad (whose agents, incidentally, may end up being Israel's only effective official presence overseas). The technical term here is "bubkes". It doesn't help that morale is at an all-time low within the Foreign Ministry, with longtime diplomats returning home to resign -- not just strike -- over money or out of frustration. None of this happened all at once, it's been brewing and bubbling over for months.

How bad is it? This week, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev canceled a visit to Israel because the government could not guarantee his arrangements. But President Medvedev did not cancel his visit to the Palestinian Authority, where yesterday he used the occasion to publicly reaffirm Russia's Soviet-era recognition of a Palestinian state. Remember, Russia is not just another country -- it's a recovering superpower, a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, and one-quarter of the Mideast Quartet that oversees the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. In recent weeks, Israel had faced a diplomatic challenge as Argentina, Uruguay, Chile (homes to three of the largest Jewish diaspora communities) and other Latin American nations recognized Palestine without waiting for a final agreement between the parties. By comparison, Russia's reaffirmation of a Soviet policy could be a crisis for Israel.

By the way, German Chancellor Angela Merkel also had to cancel her visit for next week. All these visits and events take months or years to vet and plan.

Israelis spent so many decades deriding the United Nations as "Um Shmum" that most still haven't realized how much progress has been made by their courageous and inventive delegates. The latest step forward was to be a meeting, hosted in Israel, of the UN Economic Commission for Europe: A big... deal. Dozens of countries were coming in to address the issue of alternative energy, a field in which Israel excels. Canceled. Wasted. Humiliated.

There's plenty of public arguing over who needs to give in on the wage issue, the employees or the government. I have met very few Israeli diplomats who were not exemplary, dedicated professionals (and I'm not about to list the exceptions here!). It's a sad turn of events on a human scale, but at a politically delicate moment, when Israel needs to fall back on its reserves of good will and put its best face forward, it finds itself masked and blindfolded, and exposed. Whatever agreement can be worked out, it needed to be yesterday -- literally, yesterday.

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