Israel Foreign Ministry strike leaves some South Floridians stranded

All Shimon Cohen wants to do is take a trip. But a worldwide strike by Israeli Foreign Ministry employees has made it impossible for him to get his passport renewed, leaving him stranded in Florida until the labor dispute ends.

Cohen, who lives in Delray Beach, has pushed back his planned travels, which would take him to Europe and Asia on business, for more than two weeks. And the window for him to take advantage of this business opportunity is closing, he said.

“All I really need is someone to put a stamp in my passport,” a clearly exasperated Cohen said of his travel documents, which expired on June 10.

He has called the Israeli consulate in Miami on a regular basis, but gets the same reply: Sorry, but the strike must go on.

“By not extending my passport, my freedom of travel — my basic human right of free movement — is being violated,” Cohen said.

The decision to stop providing consular services overseas is the latest step in a four-month standoff between Israel’s union of Foreign Ministry employees and the coalition government that came to power after parliamentary elections in January.

The government, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu alliance, has overseen a continued degradation in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ influence, said Chaim Shacham, the Israeli consul general for Florida and Puerto Rico.

The government stripped the ministry of several key portfolios — Iran’s nuclear ambitions, U.S.-Israeli relations and negotiations with Palestinians — in March when it created a new Ministry of International Relations, Intelligence and Strategic Affairs.

“It was like a fire sale” of the Foreign Ministry, Shacham said.

Since then, the strike has grown from refusing to send diplomatic cables to shutting down almost all consular services worldwide.

“Because we’re diplomats and we speak diplomatically, they didn’t take us seriously at first,” Shacham said, describing the strike’s escalation as painful but necessary.

The decision to stop renewing passports was made on June 16, just a few days after Cohen’s passport expired and a few days before he realized he needed to travel.

“I understand that this is a struggle, but it has to be within reason,” Cohen said.

For Israelis living abroad, “a passport is a necessity, not a luxury. Let them settle it within the borders of Israel,” Cohen said.

The Israeli mission has one of the largest consulate corps in Miami. The consulate is responsible for around 75,000 Israelis in Florida and Puerto Rico and serves about 12,500 people a year, said Ariel Roman-Harris, the consulate’s director of media and cultural affairs.

Consulate employees, whom Cohen describes as “courteous and helpful,” empathize with his situation, but are unwilling to make an exception beyond the three special cases that the union provided for initially: Israelis in potentially life-threatening situations, to repatriate a relative’s remains, or requiring time-sensitive help for issues of adoption and surrogate motherhood.

Cohen and others who have complained have been encouraged to lodge their protests with the Israeli government to pressure it to offer concessions.

While the Netanyahu government’s actions were “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Shacham said the foreign service’s grievances run much deeper. The union has raised a number of issues, ranging from employees abroad being “double-taxed,” to compensating spouses that cannot hold their own jobs due to the travel demands of foreign service officers.

Most broadly, though, diplomats are tired of playing second fiddle to the defense and intelligence agencies, whose employees are generally better compensated and given more input in the government’s decisions, Shacham said.

Such arguments are little consolation for Cohen and others throughout the world that can’t travel.

“I cannot be held as a prisoner here based on what is happening in Israel,” he said.

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