Empower the comptroller

What's lacking here, as Lindenstrauss made plain to Knesset members last week, is “teeth” for the comptroller to ensure his recommendations are implemented.

By
December 16, 2010 04:16
3 minute read.
Carmel fire rages in northern Israel

Carmel Fire Night 311. (photo credit: Associated Press)

 
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Mount Carmel was still smoldering when the hunt began kilometers south, in Jerusalem, for the ostensible really guilty parties.

For State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss, the timing could not have been more telling. Over previous weeks, his office had been finalizing a probe of Israel’s Fire and Rescue Services as part of a larger report on home front preparedness in the wake of the Second Lebanon War. In addition, the proposed biennial budget for his hard-working office was set to be debated in the Knesset.

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Even as several of the inferno’s victims still fought for their lives in Haifa’s hospitals, in the halls of Jerusalem’s government buildings, officials braced for the worst.

State Control Committee Chairman MK Yoel Hasson (Kadima) led the calls for a state commission of inquiry into the failings exposed by the fire. Interior Minister Eli Yishai, finding himself in the front line of criticism, was among the first to demand precisely such a probe, insisting it would demonstrate he was anything but the most culpable player. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu threw the weight of the rest of the coalition against the proposal.

Lindenstrauss’s probe yielded a pointed report that highlighted technical shortfalls in the Fire and Rescue Services as well as their inability to communicate effectively with other emergency responders – a failing that may have been a key factor in the early, deadly hours of the Carmel fire.

THESE DEVELOPMENTS illustrate the vital importance, but also the fatal weakness, of the State Comptroller’s Office, and the ultimate irrelevance of the political clamor about a further inquiry commission into the fire.

Israel has seen a glut of probes and commissions in the past few years – so many, in fact, that even the most retentive observers can lose track of the various embarrassing, tragic and regrettable incidents that prompted them. To name just a quartet, the Winograd Commission investigated the Second Lebanon War; the Dorner Commission probed aid to Holocaust survivors; the Bein Commission looked into Israel’s water supply; the Matza Commission evaluated the authorities’ treatment of disengagement evacuees.



Such commissions sometimes take up to six years to deliver their conclusions. The Carmel blaze, the worst in Israeli history, underlines that the improvement of our rescue services can tolerate no such delay.

What Israel’s civilian rescue services need are urgent, practical reforms to ensure that if another major forest fire – or similar disaster – strikes in the coming months or years, we will be prepared. What is least needed is a politically motivated sideshow.

Whether galvanized more by narrow political concerns or, as one would hope, national responsibility, Netanyahu took the beginnings of the right approach on Tuesday when he asked Lindenstrauss to prepare a new report on the Carmel fire. He tacked an accelerated timetable onto the request – offering the potential for rapid correction of flaws, and helpfully ensuring that the comptroller’s conclusions will likely be issued long before they might impact on an election campaign.

Unfortunately, simply asking the state comptroller for another report is itself no remedy. Last week’s findings were not the first time the State Comptroller’s Office had warned of the dire state of Israel’s emergency coordination, but previous reports such have fallen on deaf ears.

Nor is it enough for Netanyahu to give his ministers a strict deadline for correcting the flaws exposed by the comptroller. Political exigencies routinely distract public servants, and the public, from such imperatives.

WHAT’S LACKING here, as Lindenstrauss made plain to Knesset members last week, is “teeth” for the comptroller to ensure his recommendations are implemented. The State Comptroller’s Office has neither the budget nor the authority to ensure enforcement in any of the areas it investigates.

Many of the headline-making demands for commissions of inquiry – not just into the Carmel fire, but into other tragedies, scandals and embarrassments that have and will afflict us – would be unnecessary, and many of the tragedies themselves prevented or reduced, were the state’s permanent investigative commission, the State Comptroller’s Office, afforded the tools necessary to make sure its recommendations are followed.

Had that been the case following previous warnings about the state of our Fire and Rescue Services, not only would the debate about who should probe what have been avoided. The devastating fire, with 43 lost lives, might well have been prevented altogether.

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