Israel's leaders must accept some blame for fire

A father holds his child in front of his gutted house in Ein Hod, near Haifa and in the Carmel Forest

A father holds his child in front of his gutted house in Ein Hod, near Haifa and in the Carmel Forest

Binyamin Netanyahu can arguably be said to have come out well from the first national emergency of his second premiership.

Indeed, his decision to call it
a "national emergency" - at one stage he even used the word "international" - contributed to the marshalling of resources necessary to put the fire out, four days and 42 deaths after it was ignited.

The prime minister's speedy intervention allowed the formation of an international armada of firefighting planes and helicopters that, along with the heroic efforts of the firemen on the ground, ended the blaze before it seriously damaged towns and
villages.

This probably could have been achieved without some of the bombast and PR gimmicks, such as flying over from California the largest fire-fighting plane in the world, a specially-refurbished Jumbo Jet Super-tanker, which arrived long after it was needed. But Mr Netanyahu certainly proved himself this time as a level-headed leader in time of crisis.

A keen observer of American politics, Mr Netanyahu was not going to allow himself a "Katrina Moment" of the kind that critically damaged George W Bush's image when he dithered and procrastinated over a response to the floods that devastated New Orleans.

But his speedy reaction to the crisis does not exempt him from the serious question marks looming over Israel's national readiness status. Three of his key cabinet allies, Interior Minister Eli Yishai, Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz and Defence Minister Ehud Barak, were all directly blamed for the deterioration of the fire services in the State Comptroller's report published on Wednesday. Even if he was not personally blamed, he can hardly evade responsibility for such systematic government failure. The argument that the blame should be placed at the feet of successive governments that for decades avoided reforming the cumbersome and politicised local fire brigades is a disingenuous cop-out. The government is nearing the two-year mark of its term, and Mr Netanyahu already had three previous years' experience as prime minister.

One furious head of an emergency service said over the weekend that "if a bus had not been caught in the flames and 42 people had not been killed, the politicians and media would not have cared very much about this fire. Thanks to their deaths, now I hope things will change."

That will be Netanyahu's real test, not renting a super-tanker at an hour's notice, but making sure that his government provides a 21st-century firefighting service the next time the flames threaten an Israeli city.

Last updated: 1:45pm, December 9 2010