Middle Israel: On fire

Blaming Yuval Steinitz for the Carmel disaster is like blaming alcoholism on the rehab centers.

Carmel Fire 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Nir Elias)
Carmel Fire 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Nir Elias)
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 House.”
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 officer’s failure.
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 formal level.
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 Carmel.
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 patronize.
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 made.
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 Lindenstrauss.
BESIDES BEING BLAMELESS vis-à-vis the Carmel disaster, Steinitz is a unique phenomenon in our public landscape.
A philosophy 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 unorthodox.
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 him.
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 whole.
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?