For a couple of days late last week, Yakov “Yasha” Hain could have been one of
the most hated men in the country.
In the absence of Israel Electric
Corporation CEO Eliyahu Glickman, who was abroad on a private trip, the senior
vice president for engineering became the face of a utility already widely
loathed for monopolistic policies, rampant cronyism, obese paychecks and
So now, with television and radio stations having
shifted to full-time coverage of the Great Winter Storm – and, more importantly,
its fallout – Hain’s awkward, dense and lollygagging explanations for the
country’s widespread power outages were making about as much headway with
interviewers as the IEC’s electrons were in getting to some 60,000 heatless,
To be sure, Hain wasn’t at all the right person to
be sent to face the media, and you had to give him credit just for showing up,
so great and clear was his discomfort as he squirmed before the microphones and
lights. In fact, you almost had to feel sorry for him, and it wasn’t until his
boss Glickman finally returned late Friday night that you began to remember
exactly why it was you hated the electric company.
In fits of pique and
almost sneering antipathy, the CEO, a former head of the navy’s uber-tough sea
commando unit, began making the rounds of media outlets.
He fended off
tough questions with withering fire as if, having emerged from the roiling
Lebanese surf on a dark night, he had been discovered by Fatah
His relentless barrages were aimed at the know-nothings who had
dared criticize the enterprise that lays his golden eggs, although by Sunday
morning, in an interview with Army Radio, he apparently had composed himself
sufficiently for the rank hubris to ooze to the surface.
“I invite the
state comptroller to inspect and investigate in depth, and I’m convinced that
the IEC will be praised,” Glickman said, as snowbound residents of Jerusalem,
Safed and elsewhere were still digging out, and thousands of households had yet
to be replugged into the electrical grid. “This was a storm that happens once in
100 years, and everyone was taken by surprise.”
I’m not so sure. The
meteorologists knew what was coming, and days before the storm reached our
shores, those of us who bothered to listen to the weather guy or gal at the end
of the evening news knew we were in for something very big.
as the winter of 1992, residents of Jerusalem and other hilly environs were
gobsmacked by a powerful blizzard that left similar numbers of IEC customers
without power. My wife and I, along with our firstborn, an infant of just seven
months, spent four days without power, although we were spared severe discomfort
because we had kept a couple of those fantabulous Japanese kerosene tower
heaters from our days of living in one of the capital’s more funky
neighborhoods, where central heating was nonexistent and even some of the
bathrooms, including ours, were still out back.
You never know, my father
used to say, so plan for the unexpected – and he was not the CEO of a large,
strategically vital utility.
After 1992, in the pre-winter months of each
year, although it was never quite enough, you could see the now-wiser IEC crews
diligently cutting back trees and other natural growth that could bring down
power lines in bad weather. What’s more, with plans afoot by the municipality
and several utilities to improve some of the neighborhood’s infrastructure, the
IEC jumped on board and moved our power lines underground. The result? I’m
almost embarrassed to report that last week, with widespread and lengthy
blackouts just across the main drag, our side of the road had uninterrupted
power and, much more importantly, heat.
Don’t get me wrong about the IEC.
I admire the linesmen and others who do the scut work. They’re the heroes of the
Great Winter Storm, the soldiers sent into battle by old men who sip their
cognac in fancy clubs where they discuss bonuses and golden parachutes, and then
tell the rest of us to shut up and bug off with our complaints.
The fat cats from the Israel Electric Corporation were not alone in this
Let’s start with us, especially those for whom it was business as
usual on the two steep and winding main roads to the west that lead into and out
of the capital. Lots of people from the coastal plain simply had to drive up for
iPhone footage of the kids plastering each other with snowballs and sliding down
hills on the covers of trash bins ripped from their hinges.
fact that as the blizzard built, the authorities loudly warned the snow tourists
to stay away or leave. In the end, the luckier ones got floor space at the
Jerusalem International Convention Center, while many of the others ended up
stranded for many hours – and, in at least one case, days – in snowbound cars
just a few kilometers outside town. Setting aside the clear need to rescue these
people, their vehicles, gridlocked at crazy angles, blocked road crews from
spreading sand and rock salt, things that might have been able to keep the
routes open and prevent our nation’s capital from being cut off.
Israel Police screwed up big-time, simply by failing to close these roads early
enough to keep them clear for the road crews. The Jerusalem Municipality screwed
up big-time by failing to fit plow blades on its fleet of large, sure-footed
rock salt trucks, and sending them out early enough to keep roads open for
police, ambulances and fire apparatus – and, no less important, for IEC repair
crews and municipal tree and debris removal personnel.
capital’s hidebound light rail operator, screwed up big-time by failing to take
care of trees and other impediments to its overhead power lines, and by not
keeping its tracks clear. And the government screwed up big-time by having too
many ministries and agencies with overlapping responsibilities, which led to
turf wars at the very moment people needed their help.
The icing on the
cake was Saturday night’s public spectacle at Jerusalem’s City Hall, where Prime
Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, knowing that things had spun far out of control,
put on a carefully scripted show broadcast live on all the major TV and radio
stations, primarily to inform us that he, personally, was now in
It was somewhat bizarre to see a clique of glib, powerful people
who usually, with a barked order or snap of the finger, can get their own armies
moving, now sitting almost sullenly as Netanyahu all but berated them. The only
thing that ruined it was the fact that, instead of listening quietly to the
presentations and then making a few comments, perhaps to better coordinate the
efforts, Bibi, as only Bibi knows how, lectured everyone on how to do his or her
job, as if he were still sitting in the Oval Office in front of hovering cameras
and microphones and giving a churlish history lesson to Barack Obama.
In a way, though, it was comforting to see our prime minister step in to take
charge. After weeks of ridicule for how he handled everything from relations
with the US to accusations of outlandish expenses (which apparently led to his
absurd, 11th-hour decision to stay away from Nelson Mandela’s Soweto memorial
service because it would “cost too much”), he was showing everyone that he could
roll up his sweatered sleeves and soil his hands if need be.
was his way of priming us for the piles of dirty work facing him in other areas,
where it’s about time someone took control. Or maybe he was just keeping poor
Yasha Hain in mind, knowing that when things start going south, the first step
is to make people at least think
someone’s in charge.