Carmel’s lesson

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.

Burned out Prison Service bus from Carmel Fire 370 (R) (photo credit: NIR ELIAS / Reuters)
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 decisions.
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 committees...
continue to be appointed, continue to make similar recommendations to their predecessors, but fail to bring about the needed changes.”
In July 2007, after the Second Lebanon War, Lindenstrauss pointed to the ongoing neglect and repeated the recommendations made by previous probes.
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 implemented.
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 population.
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 decisions.
A 2005 study by Doron Navot and Eli Reches found that 70 percent of government decisions are left unimplemented.
When the 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 death.
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 fosters stability.
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 tragedy.