As firefighters came the closest they have been to gaining control over the Carmel fire since it broke out Thursday, the Prime Minister's Office said that it approached the Fire Commissioner some four months ago about securing fire-fighting aircraft, but received no response.

PMO Director-General Eyal Gabai told Israel Radio Sunday morning that in all previous reports from the fire service, there were budget demands, but no request for fire-fighting aircraft.

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Gabai added that the Netanyahu government has allocated a larger budget for the fire services than any previous government, but admitted that the increased funding was used for equipment other than fire-fighting planes.

On Saturday night, the finger-pointing began, with much of the burden of responsibility  placed on Interior Minister Eli Yishai, whose ministry is responsible for Israel’s firefighting services.

The Ometz good governance watchdog called on Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to fire Yishai because of his “ministerial responsibility for the failures.” Ometz claimed that the State Comptroller’s Office had recently given the Interior Ministry a draft report pointing out the shortcomings in the Fire Service, which, the organization said, explicitly warned that the service would be hard-pressed in times of national disaster.

The ministry, Ometz complained, did not translate the report into immediate action, nor into demands for an increased budget.

Yishai, in turn, redirected the criticism toward a less-obvious culprit: former prime minister Ariel Sharon.

During an emergency cabinet meeting held in Tel Aviv on Friday, Yishai demanded that a governmental investigative commission be set up to examine the disaster. He cited years of neglect leading to the current situation and said that in 2001, Sharon’s government voted to eliminate air support for firefighting.

Yishai, who was then, as now, interior minister, stressed that he had opposed the decision to privatize air support to the Chem-Nir company.

“I said months ago that we need to plan for an emergency situation,” he claimed. “Nobody ever examined a scenario of such a fire.

Yishai added that he had “dedicated effort to this issue before dealing with the yeshiva budgets, because it has to do with saving lives.”

Yishai added that in the current budget, he had “demanded an additional NIS 500 million and we received NIS 100m. – but that was not enough. In reality, we didn’t even get NIS 100m., more like NIS 70m.”

The interior minister further explained that “the procedure of ordering and budgeting [for equipment] is a long, bureaucratic process. The orders were made; but even once that is done, it takes a number of months before the fire trucks are delivered.”

Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilna’i, who is responsible for home front readiness, cast further doubt Saturday on the Interior Ministry’s performance, suggesting that responsibility for the fire services be transferred to the Public Security Ministry.

“There is no doubt that following this incident, the matter will be expedited,” said Vilna’i. “Fire services are under the Interior Ministry and the rest of the home front services are in a different position, due to investment.

“I believe the solution is to strengthen the fire services and to transfer them to the public security minister,” Vilna’i added.

If Yishai’s call for a probe into Israel’s fire services is answered, it will not be the first such commission.

In 1998, the Ginosar Commission recommended that the government establish a national firefighting authority. It took 10 years for the government to vote to establish such an authority – which it did in 2008; but over the next two years, labor disputes between firefighters’ representatives in the Histadrut Labor Federation and the Treasury deadlocked the process.


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