Washington Watch: Israel’s real burning need

The Jewish state should demand some accountability from its ministers while adopting a cooperative approach with neighbors for a regional disaster response force – Jordan, Turkey, Egypt and the PA would be up for it.

By D. BLOOMFIELD
December 8, 2010 23:19
4 minute read.
AN IDF soldier watches the firefighting operation

Carmel Firefighting Plane 311. (photo credit: Associated Press)

Americans responded to the deluge of appeals for help with the reconstruction and reforestation of the Carmel even before Israel’s worst forest fire was extinguished. The cost will run into the hundreds of millions, so it is tragic to learn that some who tried to help earlier were turned away because their money wasn’t kosher enough.

The Jerusalem Post reported that Interior Minister Eli Yishai, the man many hold responsible for the country’s disastrous unpreparedness, refused to accept money for badly needed fire-fighting equipment from pro-Israel Evangelical Christians. Yishai, who also heads the haredi Shas party, rejected an offer from the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, according to its leader Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein. Before Yishai took over the ministry last year, the group had delivered eight fire trucks.

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Yishai is in full cover-your-ass mode, accusing the Finance Ministry of rejecting his request for funds to modernize the Fire and Rescue Services under his jurisdiction. But had he fought half as hard for that money as he has for taxpayer funding of Shas’s religious interests, the country would have been better prepared.

Ministers are politicians first, but many take their jobs seriously. Not so members of Shas, the name of which has become synonymous with avarice and corruption. Two top Shas leaders and government ministers have gone to prison in recent years for taking bribes and other crimes: Yishai’s predecessor as party leader, Aryeh Deri, and Shlomo Benizri.

The miracle of this Hanukka was that the flames burned for only four days and not eight. Forty-two people died, 12,000 acres (48,000 dunams) were burned, 250 homes and other structures were severely damaged or destroyed and five million trees were killed. Forest recovery could take 40 years.

There is a burning need for an unfettered investigation, and for those responsible to be held accountable, no matter how high they are in this dysfunctional government. It has nothing to do with politics, religious status or ethnicity.

The fire has further fueled criticism of a government whose first spending priorities appear to be taking care of haredim and settlers, leaving little for other needs, such as a modern fire-fighting force.

IT IS scandalous that a country with an advanced economy and technology has failed to build a credible capability. This is neither the first drought nor the first forest fire, but it is the worst, and the country should have been prepared.

Three years ago the state comptroller reported the country’s fire-fighting facilities “lack a central command and control system.” Little was done to change that. A country of more than 7 million has only 1,532 firefighters, only 345 in the North, and only 40 vehicles, reports Haaretz’s Amir Oren.

This blaze apparently was the result of negligence by a teenage boy, but in tinder-dry forests and during a drought, just think how much worse it could have been had Hizbullah decided to fire incendiary rockets.

But whose fault was the fire? Here’s where Shas and Hamas seem to agree: It was divine retribution. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, spiritual leader of Shas, said God was upset because Israelis don’t “keep the Sabbath properly,” and Hamas’s Ismail Haniya declared Allah was angry “for what they did.”

On a more sober note, the Palestinian Authority sent 21 firefighters and four fire engines more advanced than Israel’s. At least 24 countries also sent aid, including Jordan, Egypt and Turkey.

There may be a silver lining in the smoke. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu personally phoned his Turkish counterpart to thank him, and the two sent diplomats to Geneva to try to patch up their feud.

Notably, Netanyahu did not send his foreign minister or deputy minister – both of whom have proven more adept at creating problems with Turkey than solving them.

Perhaps an Interior Ministry without corruption, ineptitude and parochialism could arise out of this tragedy.

As its price for joining a governing coalition, Shas usually insists on gaining control of the Interior Ministry, which it uses to impose its religious demands on the rest of the country and siphon off tax dollars for its yeshiva students and draft dodgers, and construction of haredi housing.

Recent polls found 80% of Israelis are unhappy with the role of religion in the country, and more than half would like to see a government without religious parties.

But a more immediate problem is accountability.

“Israel does not have a tradition of ministerial responsibility,” lamented Government Services Minister Michael Eitan, apparently hinting that Yishai should take responsibility for failure to provide firefighting resources, and resign.

To his credit, Netanyahu quickly recognized that Israel could not handle such a crisis on its own and, despite a national psyche that says “we don’t need anyone,” he sought international help.

Israel is a small, though not poor, nation that cannot be expected to have everything it needs to meet such a catastrophe; even the US has sought help during such emergencies.

This tragedy points to the need for a cooperative approach with Israel’s neighbors – Turkey, Jordan, Egypt and the PA have already demonstrated a willingness to help – to equip and train a regional disaster response force.

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