By Raphael Ahren and Gavriel Fiske
Pope Francis dines with Argentine Jewish leaders. (photo credit: World Jewish Congress via JTA)
(The Times of Israel) Pope Francis has been forced to cancel his planned visit to Israel, which was to take place over May 24-26, due to the ongoing labor dispute at the Foreign Ministry.
A source at the ministry confirmed to The Times of Israel on Thursday that the pontiff’s trip was cancelled because Foreign Ministry workers are currently on strike and are unable to make the necessary arrangements for the high-profile visit.
The cancellation is likely to cause “large, measurable economic damage, with all the lost tourist revenue that would have accompanied the visit,” the source said.
In early January, Francis announced that he would be visiting Bethlehem and Jerusalem in May. He was also to travel to Amman. The Foreign Ministry said that, according to the Vatican, the pope’s visit won’t be able to be rescheduled, only cancelled.
On Wednesday, it was announced that British Prime Minister David Cameron was also forced to reschedule his planned visit to Israel due to the labor dispute. Cameron was due to address the Knesset on March 12.
“I just don’t see how it’ll be possible to go ahead with the visit without the cooperation of the Foreign Ministry,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor told The Times of Israel on Wednesday.
Francis’s trip was to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the historic meeting between Pope Paul VI and Orthodox Christian spiritual leader Ecumenical Patriarch Atengora, in Jerusalem.
The trip would have been the new pope’s second visit to the Holy Land. He arrived in Israel in 1973, just as the Yom Kippur War broke out. As The Times of Israel revealed in April, the young Jorge Mario Bergoglio spent six days confined by the conflict to his Jerusalem hotel, where he studied the Letters of Saint Paul to the Corinthians.
President Shimon Peres first invited Francis to Israel immediately after his election as pope, calling on him to visit as a spiritual — not a political — leader. “The sooner you visit, the better; in these days, a new opportunity is being created for peace, and your arrival could contribute significantly to increasing the trust and belief in peace,” Peres told the pope at the time.
Both of the pontiff’s immediate predecessors visited Israel — Benedict XVI in 2009 and John Paul II in 2000.
The Israeli diplomats’ strike also threatens the planned visit of Peres to China, which has not been officially confirmed, but is planned for April. Israel’s embassy in China said this week that it was halting work on the planned visit by Peres to Beijing, as well as many other diplomatic projects, as part of labor sanctions initiated by workers who are demanding better pay from the Finance Ministry.
The Workers Union, which is fighting for higher salaries and better working conditions for diplomats serving abroad, published a list of more than two dozen measures that took effect as of Tuesday. For instance, Foreign Ministry officials will no longer cooperate in organizing visits of foreign presidents, prime ministers, foreign ministers and other officials. Likewise, the diplomats will henceforth refuse to assist Israeli officials currently abroad or planning overseas trips. No diplomatic passports will be issued and “no assistance whatsoever” will be granted to Israeli officials abroad. In addition, all consular services to Israeli citizens are suspended; exceptions will only be made in cases where lives are in danger, or bodies need to be returned to Israel for burials.
Furthermore, the ministry is temporarily suspending any cooperation with government institutions, specifically the Finance Ministry but also the Shin Bet and Mossad intelligence services and the IDF. No diplomatic cables are being sent by diplomats and the cadets course and distribution of pro-Israel public diplomacy materials has been put on hold. Diplomats have been instructed to cease any contact with the United Nations, including Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the Security Council, and other international organizations, including peacekeeping missions on Israel’s borders, such as UNIFIL and UNDOF.
Last summer, the Workers Union initiated similar labor sanctions, which were suspended at the end of July when the diplomats and the Finance Ministry agreed to approach a mediator. But the talks broke down earlier this week with no result.