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Mistaken Priorities Court Disaster


15 December 2010

By Yisarel Ne'eman

The Carmel fire is out, Israel has been doused with one of the most severe rainstorms in years (only a week late) and blame is being apportioned to this or that minister or ministry as responsible for the lack of preparedness for the worst fire in the history of the state, or any other major emergency. To begin with let's just say that we are lucky in comparison to what might have been despite the 43 deaths incurred. Much of the world came to our aid at the behest of PM Netanyahu, who one must admit, functioned quite well during the crisis.

Imagine for a moment thousands of Hezbollah rockets falling on Israel every day where the fire and police departments throughout the country worked round the clock with army rescue crews to extricate trapped civilians from collapsed buildings while putting out numerous blazes from Metulla to Eilat. And then the Carmel forest went up in flames due to the Hezbollah assaults. There would have been virtually no one to fight the fire and certainly no foreign assistance. The Carmel fire is a drill for what can be a much worse scenario.

With only 1500 firefighters nationwide Israel is ill equipped to deal with a major blaze, nor do we have the equipment to do so. Even our regular everyday fire engines are antiquated, some of them dating to the 1950s and 1960s. Much of the equipment is falling apart. Over the years warnings have been sounded concerning the lack of preparedness of the fire department on a national level. Without getting into all the details, in recent years millions have been allocated for fire fighting but little has trickled down to the local stationhouse. Furthermore the treasury is urging a major reform before releasing the funds, the government has finally realized that the fire fighters are part of the national emergency services like the police, ambulance corps (Magen David Adom), hospital, standing army and reserves. They should not be under the authority of each and every municipality (also granting them the right to strike) but rather they are integral to a state wide reservoir of emergency personnel.

All this being said, so who is responsible for the disaster? Firstly, the ongoing drought and wind conditions made controlling the fire from the outset quite difficult even under greatly improved conditions. The ministry of the interior is responsible for the fire department and therefore much of the blame is being thrown at Minister Eli Yishai. Defense Minister Ehud Barak was expected to reorganize emergency services and in particular the firefighters, this in the event of a future war but he has done nothing. Finance Minister Yuval Steinetz was expected to appropriate funds but did not and PM Netanyahu is responsible for the overall implementation. Previous governments and PMs also share the blame. However if everyone is guilty then in essence no one is responsible or one could just say the present government is unlucky.

But like all sudden crises in this country the problem is political-structural. Coalition governments are patched together and must respond to particular party interests and not national needs. Sectorial interests must be addressed with massive funding and political posts to be agreed upon or one does not have a government. Former PM Yitzchak Shamir (1983-84 and 1986-92) was known to complain that he spent 80% of his time holding his coalition together.

This past decade has seen three major crises. There was and still is the great water disaster which is only being remedied as of 2003 when PM Ariel Sharon forced massive action to build desalination plants. The initial project of 500 million cubic meters per annum is three years behind schedule and should have been finished this month. Signs of an impending water disaster were known in the mid-1980s. Over the years monies that were desperately needed for water infrastructure were constantly handed out to coalition partners to keep them in the government. For decades the farmers' lobby (a Labor operation for the most part) constantly applied pressure, demanding cheap plentiful water which the state lacked. And let's not forget the moshav and Histadrut labor union bailouts of the 1980s. The Likud and right wing and religious parties demanded more settlements regardless of cost while the haredi factions demanded more yeshiva funding and child support while refusing to participate in the economy (some two-thirds of adult men study and do not work but are paid). That is not to say that no appropriations should have been made for all of the above, rather it needed to be logical and proportional. Because the need for water infrastructure was agreed upon by all it was not an issue for negotiations – in other words, no one gained votes by demanding improved water access and the construction of desalination plants. Hence they will only be constructed when we are on the verge of disaster.

The second crisis involved the 2006 War in Lebanon and it was not just the fact that the defense minister and Labor Party leader Amir Peretz was really a union boss and lacked the military experience needed for the job. He wanted an economic post but accepted the defense ministry because the senior coalition partner, Kadima told him "to take it or leave it". For years we had a "policing" army acting against the Palestinian Low Intensity Conflict (Second Intifada). Field commanders were battling (and succeeding) against terrorism, but not particularly training or fighting wars. It was thought the air force and special units would do it all. When called for ground combat in 2006 the lower ranking echelons performed well but decision making at the political and upper military levels was inadequate. Also the Chief of Staff was Dan Halutz, an air force general appointed by PM Ariel Sharon more for his loyalties and willingness to go through with the Gaza Disengagement than for his skills (such as commanding ground forces in a war). Here coalition building and narrowly focused appointments took preference over the needs of the nation.

Now we "discovered" there are serious flaws in the fire department. This is known for quite a while. Understaffed, under equipped and under the auspices of the cities, local councils and the overall umbrella of the interior ministry the fire department is not particularly effective. Furthermore according to Nehemia Strassler, the economic correspondent for Haaretz, many of the well paying administrative positions are filled by Likud central committee members who know little about firefighting and obtained their jobs as political plums by supporting those in office.

There are serious flaws all around because of the way the system works – or malfunctions. State interests or budgets are constructed to serve the ruling coalition and not the people. If the citizens are lucky then in an election year they may get something back, but in general they will be forgotten. The way to get a piece of the state pie is to have your political party in power and then squeeze as much as they can out of the government for specific sectorial interests. The haredi parties are the best example of this nowadays, but they do nothing illegal, playing by the rules which were set with the establishment of the state.

All this leads to the conclusion that the Carmel fire will not bring about the fall of the government or new elections. Coalition politics and interests are much more powerful that anything the people can garnish, and if it is not one party in power it will be another with the same miserable semi-accountable system. An individual can lose his post as a result (like Defense Minister Amir Peretz after the 2006 War in Lebanon) but one can bounce back through the coalition system.

When one's top and very mistaken priority is keeping the coalition together then the people's interests will be sacrificed for political expediency until there is a crisis or emergency so severe that the government is forced to act and they will respond only in their own interests to hold the coalition together and remain in power for as long a possible before the next catastrophe hits.