Eager to come across as more than just a charisma-bomb with perfect teeth, JFK
asked one audience during the 1960 presidential campaign: “Do you realize what
responsibility I bear? I am the last obstacle between Nixon and the White
State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss, according to a draft
document leaked Sunday, intends to demand Yuval Steinitz’s resignation as
finance minister in a report about last year’s fire in the Carmel, which killed
44 people. Lindenstrauss apparently thinks he is a reincarnation of Kennedy,
standing between Steinitz and the national coffer. Well fortunately, Steinitz is
no Nixon and Lindenstrauss is no Kennedy.
Dilemmas about the relationship
between fire and responsibility hark back to antiquity.
The most basic
principle in this regard, that in case of damage to property “he who started the
fire must pay restitution,” was already stated by Moses (Exodus 22:5). Yet such
obvious causality is too simple for what we faced in the Carmel, as is also the
talmudic debate between Rabbi Yohanan and his son-in-law Reish Lakish, over
whether responsibility for fire damage stems from fire being equivalent to one’s
property or to one’s messenger.
These are all about causing fire, but our
dilemma is about preventing fire and then extinguishing it, and about big
budgets, expensive equipment and the training and deployment of many salaried
people, all of which were irrelevant under antiquity’s technological, economic
and political circumstances.
Fortunately, when the Bible and Talmud
couldn’t guide us, we had Lindenstrauss. And so, his fertile imagination fired,
the veteran jurist jumped into the juridical fire and resolved to get somebody
fired in the wake of the big fire, the massive tragedy that indeed made Middle
Israelis suspect that not only the mountain but the entire house was on fire,
and also a massive publicity opportunity that made Lindenstrauss, on the eve of
his retirement, fire one last arrow, so as to emerge from this fire with a
lasting legacy, or, if you will, an eternal fire.
So now, if this week’s
report was accurate, we are to emerge with what will go down in history as the
Lindenstrauss Dictum, which will read roughly thus: If anything goes wrong
anywhere, and whoever was supposed to prevent it says he didn’t fulfill his duty
because he needed more money, then the treasurer is to blame for the other
Well, though possibly true in some cases, as a rule
this is as valid as blaming famine on food, flood on water and war on metal, and
in the Carmel fire’s case this logic is altogether absurd: technically,
substantively and personally.
ON THE TECHNICAL plane the comptroller’s
job is to scrutinize the civil service, the management of the national and local
government’s assets, liabilities and agencies.
This is what we pay him to
do, and this mandate does not include inspecting the politicians’ performance.
For that we have other tools, most notably the voter’s ballot, and in extreme
cases judicial investigation committees.
Then again, that is on the
Substantively, the fact that the treasurer did not approve
a request for expanded budgeting for a particular cause, as the comptroller
reportedly complains, is nothing to lament.
An Israeli treasurer faces
daily new funding requests from ministers eager to distribute patronage, and it
is his job to confront them.
And this is even more so in the case of
Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who understands his job first of all as a service
to the one-tenth of the population that vote for his party, and only then as a
service to the other 90 percent.
That indeed is why when Steinitz
conditioned added funding on a reform in the fire-fighting operation, Yishai
lost interest in his own request.
And this is besides the fact that no
one would have stood in the interior minister’s path had he rearranged his
budget on his own volition, and thus delivered the upgraded and airborne
fire-fighting operation we so glaringly lacked that fateful day on the
For instance, Yishai could have united neighboring municipalities
– an old idea, and a huge money saver, that was partly executed in 2003 by
then-treasurer Netanyahu and interior minister Avraham Poraz. Welding local
governments can be done in many more locations today provided Yishai, like Poraz
before him, is prepared to confront the local politicians Shas prefers to
This is exactly what a minister’s job is: to take what money
the Treasury allocates his agency and see to it that it is used for what the
public needs, and not abused for what the public does not need, like the
overhead of two municipalities that share fences.
Needless to say the
thought never crossed Yishai’s mind, just like it never occurred to him to
resign when his request for additional funding for fire fighting was rejected, a
choice that the comptroller reportedly agrees the interior minister should have
Now, in attacking Steinitz, Lindenstrauss effectively says that
anyone coming to the treasurer hat in hand should have his hat filled, rather
than have that fiscal beggar rationalize his agency’s finances. And if the
treasurer doesn’t fill the hat, then he is to blame for that political robber’s
failures in conducting his agency’s affairs.
Well if so, we might as well
blame drinking on the rehabilitation centers. Sadly, even after seven years as
state comptroller, Micha Lindenstrauss has yet to learn that when an Israeli
minister, particularly one representing a narrow constituency, seeks more
funding, everyone, and first of all the Treasury, assumes he is not out to serve
the public, but to accumulate power; everyone, that is, except
BESIDES BEING BLAMELESS vis-à-vis the Carmel disaster,
Steinitz is a unique phenomenon in our public landscape.
professor who abandoned a tenure track in order to try and reshape the country,
even his detractors agree that Steinitz is a rare species in Israeli politics, a
thinker, a believer, a learner and a debater who is also honest, deliberate and
His accomplishments as treasurer – a growing, balanced and
cautiously managed island of economic stability in a global financial maelstrom
– are appreciated universally.
Yet Steinitz’s greatest promise is not as
treasurer, but as defense minister. Defense is his passion, the realm in which
he has earned expertise during his years as chairman of the Knesset Defense and
Foreign Affairs Committee, and this is the position that has long awaited a
clear-minded civilian, unlike the retired general who currently holds it, and a
broad-minded iconoclast, unlike the union leader who preceded
Ejecting Steinitz now from the Treasury, and for no fault on his
part, would be ruinous not only to him but for our public life as a
Who in his right mind would prefer politics to a promising career
not only in academia, but in business, law, engineering or the media, if the
bottom line of the Carmel disaster is that an innocent, conscientious,
hardworking and well-accomplished intellectual like Yuval Steinitz joined
politics only to pay for an ignorant, tribalist, reactionary, incompetent and
cynical hack’s damage? www.MiddleIsrael.com
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