Livni calls for PM to quit after fire services report

Knesset panel to vote on establishment of state probe; Netanyahu pledges to present proposal for national fire service within 10 days.

By REBECCA ANNA STOIL,
December 9, 2010 00:59
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 on Wednesday evening, in the shadow of a State Comptroller’s Report blasting the government’s failure to properly maintain the Fire and Rescue Service.

As the Knesset prepared to debate the establishment of a state investigative commission on the subject, Livni called on Netanyahu to take responsibility for the Carmel fire disaster and step down.

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“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 told a Union of Local Authorities conference held at Herzliya’s Interdisciplinary Center. “It is just part of the dramatic process of repair that the entire system needs to undergo.

“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,” she said. “But then we saw how practical management turned into public relations, how the practical aspect disappeared and turned into a media performance.

“The Carmel disaster revealed the failure, the inability to make systemic decisions and reinforce them with a budget planned years in advance,” she continued.

“This failure cost us human lives and once again Israeli politics are revealed in all their ignominy – the lack of appropriate balance between pursuit of the prestige that a position provides 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 for an action or a failure. That price that the leadership pays is a hundredfold lower than the price that, unfortunately, citizens have paid.”

She criticized what she called budgetary failures on the part of the government that led to the disaster.

“The Carmel failure must go from being a debate to an actuality; it exposed failures that cost the lives of people,” she said.

“We don’t need a government report to show that without the right materials, you can’t put out a fire, and without the budget you can’t have enough material.

“As the prime minister, he must not only put out fires but also prevent them. He can’t run away from this responsibility,” Livni said.

Netanyahu responded during the same conference to State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss’s report on the Fire and Rescue Service, saying that within 10 days he will present the government with his proposal for a National Fire Service and a National Air Fire Service.

In an announcement earlier on Wednesday, the prime minister said that he “appreciates” the report, “adopts its conclusions and is committed to implementing them as soon as possible.”

Netanyahu said that he already instructed the interministerial team chaired by Prime Minister’s Office director- general Eyal Gabai 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, and that he has instructed his military secretary, Maj.-Gen. Yohanan Locker, 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 Mount Carmel.

Israel must have a national fire department coordinated through a central authority, Netanyahu said.

“The police, the army and the fire department services are national services that need a central, national command. Therefore, within the next 10 days I will bring to the cabinet a proposal to forge a national fire service,” he said.

Netanyahu added that the national fire service must also have the ability to fight fires from the air.

“The national fire service will be made up first of the land forces, but that is not enough; we also need an air firefighting service. A firefighting system that operates from the air, this is the solution for mega-fires like the one we saw in the Carmel.

“These two things, a national, centralized fire department, and an air service, will give the fire services the means to deal with the needs of our reality,” Netanyahu said.

During his remarks, he also called for government action to bring the performance of municipalities in the periphery up to that of wealthier local authorities in the Central region.

Speakers at the local authorities conference focused on the Carmel wildfires, and the role of local authorities in the face of such disasters.

The Knesset’s State Control Committee will meet on Tuesday to vote on whether to establish a governmental 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 Yoel Hasson (Kadima) could assemble a majority to create such a commission.

Interior Minister Eli Yishai (Shas), Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz (Likud) and Defense Minister Ehud Barak (Labor), heads of ministries singled out in the report for their roles in the decline of fire readiness, were all invited to next Tuesday’s 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.”

He said 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,” Hasson said. “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.”

Kadima has rallied in favor of establishing a governmentlevel probe.

The fate of the commission, however, is not up to Hasson, or his allies in Kadima, but rather to the 10 other members of the State Control Committee who must vote on whether to establish a probe.

Five of the coalition MKs on the committee are almost certain to oppose the proposal, while Hasson will find easy allies among his two fellow Kadima lawmakers on the panel. Although one of them, MK Otniel Schneller, said that he personally opposes such a commission, he also promised to observe party discipline in the vote.

The deciding votes are expected to be those of Labor rebel MK Ghaleb Majadle and MK Amnon Cohen, 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 such a probe. However, he said on Wednesday morning that he personally is against such commissions.

Majadle said in a statement that he would only decide next week, but he hinted that he could vote in favor because he found the controllers’ report to be so grave.

With relations between Yishai and the prime minister 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 on Wednesday, when Shas preempted the government and presented a private member’s bill to establish a national firefighting authority – one of the recommendations listed in the State Comptroller’s Report.

Interior Committee chairman MK David Azoulay (Shas) presented the legislation, which details a 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.

Gil Hoffman contributed to this report.


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