As the world was following events in Japan, in a side room at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, work on earthquake preparedness here continued. Minister Without Portfolio Benny Begin, a geologist, was recently appointed to coordinate activities in advance of what could be destruction of a magnitude Israeli society has never known.

Last week, the Knesset Interior and Environment Committee approved for second and third reading in the plenum an amendment to the law on betterment tax that would grant an exemption, as an incentive, to people who protect their property from earthquakes as part of National Master Plan 38, which also stipulates the granting of additional building rights.

According to current estimates, about 80 percent of the buildings in Israel were built after the approval of a special standard for earthquake protection in 1980. Structures built according to this standard could suffer damage but should not collapse. Therefore, effort is currently focused on reinforcing buildings that do not meet the standard.

"We are looking for additional economic incentives in the context of the master plan to encourage people to join the project," says Begin, "but we aren't close to doing everything possible. There is a limit to what the state can do, and citizens must take responsibility and decide if they are investing several tens of thousands of shekels in buying a new car on in reinforcing their homes to protect their families.

Begin rejects the frequently heard claim (inter alia, in state comptroller's reports ) that not enough has been done to prepare for earthquakes. He says Israel is reasonably prepared both with respect to the stability of buildings and to emergency preparedness. In the near future systematic reinforcing of public buildings will begin, in accordance with a list of priorities dictated by such factors the age of the building and its proximity to likely earthquake epicenters.

Earthquake preparedness is being pursued mainly by means of an inter-ministerial steering committee headed by Dr. Avi Shapira. The National Emergency Authority and the Home Front Command are preparing for the period following an earthquake, in part by establishing rescue battalions to clear blocked roads. Shapira has noted in the past that Israel experiences a large earthquake on average every 80 years, and the last one was in 1927, in which more than 200 people died. Its epicenter was north of the Dead Sea, where the country straddles the Syrian-African Rift. He said last year that even in expensive areas in the country's center, where 100,000 buildings could be reinforced according to National Master Plan 38, this has been done with only a few hundred buildings.

Begin rejects the scenarios presented by some professionals before he took up the job. "There is no basis to the estimate of nearly 20,000 dead and 70,000 injured. We are planning for a quake in which buildings will be destroyed and there will be thousands of casualties, without our being able to estimate how many will be killed and how many injured. We cannot and need not prepare for the most destructive earthquake imaginable."

There are also plans for establishing a warning system to alert people following an earthquake along the Syrian-African Rift or a quake in the Mediterranean Sea that would cause a tsunami. Some geologists believe swift action should be taken to set up a system of sensors in the Dead Sea area, to send out signals of an earthquake as it happens and allow up to 20 seconds to flee or to take protective action. A warning system for a tsunami in which Mediterranean countries including Israel could be inundated is in the formulation stages.