Knesset Postpones Vote on State Panel of Inquiry Into Carmel Fire

Netanyahu is opposed to state probe, but Yishai wants panel to clear him of responsibility; MK Hasson: This is our moment of truth as members of Knesset.

Intense coalition lobbying against a state commission to investigate the Carmel fire has apparently succeeded, as the Knesset Control Committee struggled to muster a majority for the panel at its heated session on Tuesday.

After an inconclusive debate, a vote on the matter was pushed off by a week.

Carmel fire bus
Dan Oren

Committee chairman MK Yoel Hasson (Kadima ), who is spearheading the move to set up an inquiry panel, opened the debate on the state comptroller's report regarding the failings of the fire services by urging lawmakers to act "in the best interest of the citizens" instead of focusing on political considerations.

"To be a ministers means to take responsibility," Hasson declared, adding this was "our moment of truth as Knesset members" to regain the trust of the public.

Interior Minister Eli Yishai blamed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the meeting for the controversy over establishing the panel, saying he supported the move but the premier favored a comptroller inquiry alone.

Yishai last week called for a state commission in the hope it would clear him of exclusively responsibility for the failures of the fire services, of which his ministry is in charge.

Netanyahu called Yishai several times in the following days to dissuade him from acting to set up such a panel.

The interior minister told the Knesset Control Committee that he believed "the responsibility [for the destruction] lies with the government. This government did not enough, but more than its predecessors."

But he also said he felt that he and his colleagues from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party were being singled out unfairly as criticism was heaped on them over the way funds had been distributed and speculation that the disaster could have been prevented.

"Such questions aren't asked of other ministers, just those from Shas," he said. "When the defense minister doesn't get the budget he seeks, nobody asks him these questions.

At a stormy session of the Knesset Interior and Environment Committee on Monday blame was laid on Yishai for a catalog of failures that led to the Carmel fire disaster last week.

Senior firefighters, heads of local authorities that were ravaged by the fire and Knesset members blasted Yishai for the debacle.

Yishai said he was not evading responsibility, but admitted he had not allocated sufficient funds to the fire services. He argued, however, that he had warned of the dangerous situation for years.

"We didn't [allocate] sufficient money, I admit," Yishai said Monday, but presented letters and debate transcripts in which he had warned of the situation over the years.

"I'm not running away from responsibility .... I don't know any minister before me who sent warnings and letters ... and finally achieved something," he said.

The head of the Isfiya local council, Wajeh Kayouf, said at that meeting that "since the fire, I have people without water and electric power. We don't have a single firefighting vehicle. We are citizens of Israel."

According to MK Shelly Yachimovich (Labor ), "the Finance Ministry squeezed the fire services dry. One fire truck in Isfiya would have prevented the disaster. This is the lesson - not to reduce the state's services."

The chairman of the Union of Local Authorities, Shlomo Bohbot, said "we're dealing with an extremely grave result of many years. The coalition is going to vote on a budget based on a cutback policy. This is crazy.

"When they talk about allocating NIS 100 million to the fire services, does anyone ask himself where the money comes from? Not from the treasury. The local authorities have to pay NIS 60 million and the Interior Ministry ... pays NIS 30 million. It's a joke."

Tirat Carmel Mayor Arieh Tal said "we received no warning of the fire; only people who saw the smoke cloud alerted us. There was no coordination .... The firefighting services we had could not stop the fire."

The chairman of the national firefighters organization, Yoav Gadasi, complained that nobody had consulted with the firefighters over setting up the new firefighting authority.