Israel’s consulate serving the Pacific Northwest is closed for business.
So are the country’s 102 other embassies, consulates and diplomatic missions around the world, as employees of Israel’s Foreign Ministry move into an open-ended general strike following two weeks of labor sanctions and seven months of unsuccessful mediation.
“Today, for the first time in Israel’s history, the Foreign Ministry will be closed and no work will be done in any sphere under the ministry’s authority,” said a statement issued by the Foreign Ministry’s worker’s committee on March 23, the first day of the strike.
That means no tourist, student or work visas can be issued from any embassy or consular office. Israelis living abroad cannot renew expired passports, register their newborn children as Israeli citizens, sell or buy property in Israel, or conduct a wide range of legal activities that require consular attention.
In the Bay Area, many people have already been affected, said Consul General Andy David. The consulate, located on Montgomery Street in San Francisco’s Financial District, stopped providing services to the public on March 4, the first day of a partial shutdown leading into the general strike. Its website is bannered with a note of explanation that ends with, “We are sorry for the inconvenience.”
While U.S. citizens don’t need visas to visit Israel, many foreign nationals do, including non-U.S. citizens working for Silicon Valley companies that do business in Israel. “Many of the experts and engineers traveling from here to Israel are Asian,” David noted. “We have dozens going on a weekly basis.”
The 50,000 or so Israeli citizens living in the Bay Area cannot conduct consular business, including renewing their passports. A few “are stuck here” with expired or lost passports they cannot now replace, David said. That could lead to some unhappy Israelis who were hoping to fly home for Passover.
From March 4 until last weekend, the consulate’s 20 or so employees continued to come into the office to work on internal business and plan future activities. However, on March 23, the entire office closed down.
“This is very extreme for us diplomats,” David said, noting that other sectors of the Israeli workforce, including teachers, hospitals and social workers, go on strike with some regularity, whereas the Foreign Ministry has never done so.
Employees are protesting, among other things, salary cuts, low pensions and poor compensation packages offered to spouses of overseas diplomats.
The Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem is also closed. Damage to Israel’s economy due to the work dispute has already totaled millions of dollars, JTA reported.
The strike could sink a planned visit to Israel by Pope Francis in May. Limited sanctions caused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to cancel a recent trip to Latin America, and affected his March 5 trip to Silicon Valley.
While the prime minister’s whirlwind day in the Bay Area went off without a hitch, David said that he personally was “very disappointed” not to be able to attend any of the events he and his consular staff had worked so hard to arrange.
And the strategic partnership agreement signed that day between Israel and California has been put on hold because of the strike. “All the things that need to be implemented, we can’t work on,” David said. “Issues of water, the drought, alternative energy, nothing. Both sides are eager to start implementing the agreement, and we can’t. It’s a setback.”
This week, Foreign Ministry officials were meeting with representatives of striking employees, trying to hammer out an agreement with the help of mediators.
“We are anxious to get back to work,” David said.
JTA contributed to this report.