Guillotine politics

Going under fire for wild fires: When a mistake is made in Israel, both politicians and the public are overly eager to send the “responsible” party to slaughter. But in the haste for rapid retribution, there is often no distinction made between a perpetrator and a patsy.

Carmel Fire Night 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Carmel Fire Night 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
In late 2007, wild fires broke out all over southern California. Almost 1 million residents (including myself) were forced to flee their homes. Nearly 2,000 square km were left charred. Costs soared into the billions of dollars. Local resources were overwhelmed, so firefighters from all over the country and even Mexico had to be called in to help extinguish the blaze.
And yet, no one lost their job.
No officials or bureaucrats, on the local or state level, were thrown out of office. Not a single politician was heckled. Not even in the local gas and electric company - whose faulty power lines sparked most of the fires - was a single person fired (pun intended) in the wake of the disaster.
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So why is it that when a similar natural disaster happens in Israel, it is taken for granted that heads must roll? Indeed, watching Israeli politics often reminds one of the bloodlust following the French revolution. Almost every week a story breaks out regarding some politician or official whose head is placed on the chopping block.
Of course, not all severed heads are undeserved. Both former president Moshe Katsav and former prime minister Ehud Olmert unquestionably reaped what they sowed, although the latter has yet to be convicted of the corruption charges that forced his resignation.
The real problem with our particular brand of mob justice is that far too often we are, at a heartbeat, ready to dismiss those few talented and effective individuals who do enter public service. In the name of “justice,” the risk of throwing out the babies with the bathwater is one that is often overlooked. Consider how one misplaced kiss ended the career of former government minister Haim Ramon. Even if his infamous smooch was fraught with folly - folly mind you, not evil intent - should that really have been the kiss of death for a man who was the driving force behind major initiatives like the security fence during the second intifada or the national health insurance reform in 1995?
This past week we caught our final glimpse of another victim of instant mob justice, as Meir Dagan made his last public statement as head of the Mossad. Despite a string of impressive and daring feats that revived the service’s reputation amongst friends and foes alike, when the assassination in Dubai went awry, calls for his ouster immediately followed.
Another indication of just how pervasive this bloodlust is can be seen by how infrequently ruling parties win re-election in Israel. Since the fall of Labor in 1977, only two prime ministers have managed to win re-election: Menachem Begin in 1981 and Ariel Sharon in 2003. Even here, Begin’s victory was razor thin: he won by a mere 0.5 percent. Had Begin not bombed Osirak only three weeks before the election, it is entirely possible that he would have been voted out of office as well.
Again, certain officials do deserve to be thrown out of office. Some decisions are so poor that they require a price to be paid. The real question, therefore, is how can we tell the difference? How do we know when we, as citizens, should demand someone step down, and when we should just let a mistake slide?
Let me suggest that there are three key factors to consider before we rush to judgment: was the mistake foreseeable, did the mistake’s cost overshadow the person’s achievements, and was the mistake actually the fault of person in question.
The first criteria - the predictability of the error - is often more straightforward than we might expect. Because opposition figures always have an incentive to point out the government’s blunders, they serve as an easy indicator for determining whether a disastrous outcome could have been foretold. Therefore the first port of call is to investigate whether someone from the opposition had made a strong argument against a decision prior to its being made. An excellent example of this is Kadima MK Nachman Shai, who even before the navy commandos boarded the Mavi Marmara, warned that armed soldiers boarding an aid ship would be fraught with PR peril.
Second, the mistake needs to be costly, especially relative to the official’s merits. In other words, mistakes happen, particularly for the rare individual who actually dares to do more than simply hold on to their seat. Sacking an official every time anything goes wrong is akin to firing basketball players every time they miss a shot.
Finally, before we send decide to bring an official before the figurative firing squad, we should make sure that the mistake in question is actually their fault, and not that they are culpable simply because the issue falls under their administrative jurisdiction. At the very minimum, it must be proven that despite being aware of the potential disaster, they took no steps to avoid it.
Whether Interior Minister Eli Yishai in particular should be held responsible for the Carmel disaster remains an open question. Obviously, when Californians are ill-prepared for a major fire it does not have implications for their national security the way being ill-prepared here does. Let’s just make sure that if Yishai or others get punished, it’s deserved and not just to satisfy the mob’s bloodlust.
The writer is the former Deputy Director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center (GLORIA) in Herzliya.