Burned out Prison Service bus from Carmel Fire 370 (R).
(photo credit: NIR ELIAS / Reuters)
Israel is in desperate need of electoral reform. That should be the conclusion
drawn from State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss’s probe into the reasons for
our firefighting forces’ pitiful lack of preparedness during the December 2010
Mount Carmel forest fire.
Most media attention has focused on the
personal responsibility borne by Interior Minister Eli Yishai and Finance
Minister Yuval Steinitz, and to a lesser degree by Prime Minister Binyamin
Netanyahu, for this unpreparedness.
But a deeper look into the reasons
for the ongoing neglect of our firefighting forces reveals a chronic inability
of consecutive governments to follow through with their own
Dating back to at least July 1995, when a huge fire scorched
2,000 hectares (5,000 acres) of forest and 31 houses and injured dozens of
people in and around Sha’ar Hagai, Shoresh and Neveh Ilan, just west of
Jerusalem, the many faults of the understaffed and inadequately equipped
firefighting forces have been well known.
The Lapidot Committee, created
in the aftermath of the Sha’ar Hagai fire, listed the many defects of our
firefighting services. The 1998 Ginosar Committee reached similar conclusions.
In 1998, then-state comptroller Miriam Ben-Porat lamented that “various
continue to be appointed, continue to make similar
recommendations to their predecessors, but fail to bring about the needed
In July 2007, after the Second Lebanon War, Lindenstrauss
pointed to the ongoing neglect and repeated the recommendations made by previous
So why was nothing done? Why were firefighters caught unprepared
in December 2010 when the Carmel forest fire broke out? It was not for a lack of
government decisions. Already in 1999, the government under Netanyahu, during
his first stint as prime minister, approved the Ginosar Committee’s
recommendations and decided to form a nationwide firefighting authority. But the
government decisions were never implemented.
In 2008, the government
under prime minister Ehud Olmert once again decided to create a nationwide
firefighting authority. Once again the government decision was never
In 2010, yet another government decision was made along
similar lines. But when the Carmel forest fire came, none of the NIS 100 million
set aside to improve firefighting services had been spent.
As noted by
Amnon Rubinstein and Adam Wolfson in their new book, Absence of Government: How
to Rectify the System, the Mount Carmel forest fire debacle is a symptom of a
much deeper problem in the political system: a crisis of governance. Israeli
governments are ineffectual. In large part this is due to our extreme
proportional representation electoral system.
The low 2-percent threshold
for election to the Knesset encourages the creation of political parties with
radical or narrow agendas representing only a fraction of the
Government coalitions are created by pulling together a
patchwork of diverse factions plagued with chronic divisions and instability.
Often, a single fringe party can bring down a government, giving the party
inordinate leveraging power. Even if governments manage to survive the full
length of their terms – a rare occurrence in Israeli politics – they are
preoccupied more with selfpreservation than with implementing policy
A 2005 study by Doron Navot and Eli Reches found that 70
percent of government decisions are left unimplemented.
decisions that are not being implemented are related to public housing,
privatization of the sea ports, reforms in the Israel Electric Corporation or
the light rail project in Tel Aviv, it is unfortunate. But when much-needed
reforms in firefighting services are being neglected, it is a matter of life and
Under the circumstances, ministers such as Yishai and Steinitz,
like ministers before them, have grown accustomed to seeing government decisions
ignored. It has become a part of our political culture.
It is imperative
that we rectify the situation by revamping our electoral system in a way that
With a broad coalition of 94 MKs, the present
government – which has made electoral reform a priority – has an historic
opportunity to rise to the occasion.
Taking the steps needed to improve
the government’s stability and its ability to implements decisions might not be
much of a consolation to those who lost loved ones in the Carmel fire. But
restricting the lessons learned from the fire to an indictment of Yishai and
Steinitz will do nothing to change the underlying factors that have led to the
sorrowful state of our firefighting services – and might lead to yet another