Livni slams PM's handling of fires as 'media act'

Opposition leader calls on Netanyahu to resign during IDC Herzliya speech; PM: First step is creating nationwide ground firefighting force.

December 8, 2010 20:52
Tzipi Livni during a speech at IDC Herzliya

311_Livni at IDC. (photo credit: Channel 10 News)

Opposition Leader Tzipi Livni called for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s resignation Wednesday evening, in the shadow of an exceptionally critical State Comptroller’s report blasting the government’s failure to maintain Israel’s fire services. As the Knesset prepared to debate the establishment of a governmental investigative commission on the subject, Livni called on Netanyahu to take responsibility for the Carmel fire disaster and resign.

“In a functioning state, as Israel should be, the comptroller’s report would be enough for those responsible to pay a price. It is called resignation, and responsibility starts at the top,” Livni said.  “It is just part of the dramatic process of repair that the entire system needs to undergo.”

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“I have no doubt that the prime minister wanted to handle the tragedy and to do as much as could be done to stop the flames,” complained Livni. “But then we saw how practical management turned into public relations, how the practical aspect disappeared and turned into a media performance.”

Speaking at the Local Government Conference held at Herzliya’s Interdisciplinary Center, Livni said that “the Carmel disaster revealed the failure, the inability to make systemic decisions and reinforce them with a budget planned years in advance. This failure cost us human lives and once again Israeli politics are revealed in their inglory - the lack of suitability between pursuit of the respect that a position grants and the flight from the responsibility that the same position places upon you.”

Livni acknowledged that there are “those who say that cutting off heads will not help, and they are right that it will not bring back the dead, but it will impact future decision-making, not as a punishment, but so that every minister and prime minister knows from here onward that there is a price to an act or a failure. That price that the leadership pays is a hundredfold lower than the price that, unfortunately, citizens have paid.”

Netanyahu himself responded during the same conference to State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss's report on the Fire and Rescue Service, saying that within ten days he would present the government with his proposal for a National Fire Service, as well as a National Air Fire Service.  In an announcement earlier Wednesday, Netanyahu said that he “appreciates” the report and “adopts its conclusions and is committed to implementing them as soon as possible.”

Netanyahu said that he already instructed the inter-ministerial team chaired by Prime Minister's Office Dir.-Gen. Eyal Gabbai to discuss the report's recommendations next week with the goal of implementing them forthwith.

The Prime Minister’s Office noted that Netanyahu had already increased the Fire and Rescue Service's budget by NIS 100 million this year, has instructed his Military Secretary, Maj.-Gen. Yohanan Loaker, to present to him, in the coming days, a proposal for establishing an aerial firefighting force, which would be the only way to deal with massive wildfires such as occurred on Mt. Carmel.

But despite the immediate steps that Netanyahu’s office took in wake of the scathing report, the Knesset’s State Control Committee will meet next Tuesday to vote on whether to establish a Government Investigative Commission to probe the chain of failures indicated in Lindenstrauss’s report. Although the committee has the authority to vote to establish such a probe should a state comptroller’s report demonstrate its necessity, it was not at all certain that Committee Chairman MK Yoel Hasson (Kadima) could draw together a majority in his committee to support the probe.

Interior Minister Eli Yishai, Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, heads of ministries singled out in the report for their complicity in the decline of fire readiness, were all invited to the Tuesday meeting.

“The comptroller said that the report testifies to ‘completely unacceptable management, mostly among government decision-makers’,” quoted Hasson, “which is an unprecedented statement that demands taking significant additional steps.” Hasson added that “in light of the report, the only way to change the perspective among decision-makers regarding the fire services is through the establishment of a governmental investigative commission. Only such a commission has legal authority to make personal assessments and the professional authority to formulate a new and good model for the fire services.”

 “The comptroller’s report is a very serious and severe report – one of the most serious that we have seen,” explained Hasson. “The report is especially serious considering that it is a follow-up to an earlier report, which clearly shows that the errors that the comptroller pointed out in the 2007 report were not corrected, and that decision makers did not do what they were expected to and failed in their positions.”

The fate of the commission, however, is not up to Hasson, or his allies in Kadima, but rather to the ten other members of his committee who must vote whether or not to establish the probe. Five of the coalition members on the committee are almost certain to oppose the proposal, while Hasson will find easily allies among his two fellow Kadima members on the committee. Although one of them, MK Otniel Schneller (Kadima) said that he personally opposes such a probe, he also promised to uphold faction discipline on the vote.

The swing vote may well be that of MK Amnon Cohen (Shas), the lone Shas representative on the committee. Cohen has supported Shas Chairman Yishai’s call to establish a governmental investigative commission, despite efforts by the Prime Minister’s Office to block the establishment of such a probe. With relations between Yishai and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at a low following the Carmel fire, Shas’s insistence on establishing a probe would be a further sign of growing tension within the coalition.

One such sign was evident Wednesday, when Shas pre-empted the government and presented a private member’s bill to establish a national firefighting authority – a move that was one of the recommendations listed in the State Comptroller’s Report. Interior Committee Chairman MK David Azoulay (Shas) presented the bill that details the framework for the firefighting authority as well as its duties and powers. The bill, which is similar to a number of similar government proposals that have yet to be put into effect, passed its preliminary reading in the plenum easily, with 41 supporters and no opponents.

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