Yishai, Steinitz refuse to quit over Carmel Fire

Upcoming State Comptroller report allegedly calls for finance, interior ministers to be transferred to other positions.

By GIL STERN STERN HOFFMAN,
January 29, 2012 21:15
3 minute read.
Man surveys Carmel fire at Kibbutz Beit Oren

Carmel Fire 311 (R). (photo credit: REUTERS/Nir Elias)

 
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Interior Minister Eli Yishai and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz vowed on Sunday to fight to keep their jobs following leaks that State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss’s report on the Mount Carmel fire may recommend they be dismissed from their posts.

Sources who read leaked copies of the report said that Lindenstrauss is not expected to call for Yishai and Steinitz to resign, but he may recommend they be transferred to different cabinet positions.

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“The first movers are always the ministers who are at the top of the pyramid,” Lindenstrauss said in a recent meeting with bereaved families, according to a recording revealed by Channel 2.

Lindenstrauss warned that whoever refused to carry out his recommendations would be put “in a very difficult situation” with the public and would face a disciplinary punishment. “I don’t think they should mess with us,” he said.

Yishai pledged to fight for his good name and called upon Lindenstrauss not to stoop to populism. Yishai’s associates said that given the interior minister’s warnings that a disaster could take place and his allocations of millions of shekels to the firefighting service, it was unreasonable that the comptroller would blame him out of all people.

“There is no argument that I was the only minister who took action to prevent the fire before it took place,” Yishai said. “Should I have gotten on a firetruck and driven there?” A source close to Steinitz said it was “delusional” that he should lose his job because he transferred money required by the Fire Service and then it got stuck in the bureaucracy of the Interior Ministry and the Fire Service.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s associates said he was waiting to see the report from the comptroller before he passes judgment. They said the prime minister received assurances from Lindenstrauss’s office that the media leaks were incorrect.

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Lindenstrauss’s report on the December 2010 fire is due to be submitted to Knesset next month, and the state comptroller is expected to say that Steinitz and Yishai are personally but indirectly responsible for the tragedy, sources who read the leaked report said.

The report is also expected to place responsibility on Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch.

The fire claimed the lives of 44 people, among them 37 Prisons Service cadets and their commanding officers, who died when their bus was engulfed by flames.

The fire also caused widespread damage to land and property, totaling millions of shekels. An estimated 1.5 million trees were destroyed.

According to reports in Yediot Aharonot, Lindenstrauss’s report is expected to criticize Steinitz for exceeding his authority and violating government decisions by preventing the transfer of funds for firefighting services until they acceded to his demands for reform. Instead, Steinitz should have first transferred the funds and then called for reform, the report is expected to conclude.

According to the sources, services to which the Treasury did not transfer funds include meteorological forecasting, the annual cost of which stands at NIS 40,000. Further, just two days before the Carmel fire broke out, on-call status for firefighting aircraft was suspended, even though a single hour’s on-call time costs just $200.

Lindenstrauss sent a draft copy of the report in August 2011 to Netanyahu, Yishai, Steinitz and Aharonovitch.

Senior officials in the police and the Prisons Service also received a copy of the draft report, which at 450 pages is unprecedented in scope in recent years.

A team of 30 auditors, led by deputy director-general of the State Comptroller’s Office Boaz Aner, have worked around the clock on the report, Lindenstrauss’s office has said.

The report’s length directly correlates with the “scale of the disaster and its serious consequences” and that it reveals “a long series of blunders and failures, the tragic outcome of which is that the fatal fire in the Carmel – which took a toll of unprecedented magnitude – was not avoided,” the State Comptroller’s Office said in August.

Lindenstrauss’s full report into the fire will come after the state comptroller dubbed the Fire and Rescue Services in a previous report as the “weak link” in emergency readiness and said that ministerial responsibility lay with Yishai.

Journalist-turned-Knesset-hopeful Yair Lapid posted on his Facebook wall in response to the leaks that the government “of 40 ministers and deputy ministers that are subject to constant wringing” does not put its money into “firefighting, nor housing, nor education, nor welfare, nor police, nor health.”

“It’s not that there is no money – where is it?” Lapid asked, referring to his campaign slogan “Where is the money?”

Lahav Harkov contributed to this report.

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