We're all (not) to blame
The one person Netanyahu forgot to thank for his role in putting out the flames was the only member of his government who really deserved a pat on the back, Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch.
If you ask Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu what constitutes an urgent mission, he'll say it's taking care of all those hurt in the fire. But another mission is consuming just as much of his energy, and that's his campaign to prevent the establishment of a state commission of inquiry to investigate the disaster. If such a commission were to be established, it could take a year and a half for it to complete its work, and then its findings would be published just with the next election campaign heating up. Even if Netanyahu doesn't emerge as the key culprit, everything will come out in that report. And as far as he's concerned, that cannot happen.
The balance of power in the Knesset's State Control Committee is tilted in his favor. And the call from opposition leader Tzipi Livni that those responsible step down also serves his interests. The public atmosphere today is not what it was after the Second Lebanon War. Nobody's taking in the streets demanding a commission of inquiry.
In the Haaretz-Dialog public opinion poll published Tuesday, the Netanyahu government received an average grade of "inadequate" for its handling of the country's firefighting services, in line with the State Comptroller's Report. Netanyahu received high grades for his performance during the four days of the fire. Most of the public is prepared to make do with the report from the state comptroller, retired Judge Micha Lindenstrauss, whom most Israelis perceive as a professional and trustworthy judicial authority, and forgo a state commission of inquiry.
The bottom line of the poll (conducted by Professor Camil Fuchs of Tel Aviv University's statistics department ) is that the high level of public satisfaction with Netanyahu, combined with a feeling that the government will know how to draw the appropriate conclusions from the disaster, symbolizes calm on the domestic front. It's the embodiment of the "everything's gonna be all right" and "trust us" culture Israelis are all too familiar with.
The Carmel fire caught Interior Minister Eli Yishai at low ebb. An extreme right-winger, he supports an extortionate ultra-Orthodox agenda, and opposes easing conversion procedures for soldiers and tougher treatment of girls who avoid military service. He supports paying stipends to the ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students in violation of a High Court of Justice ruling, as he wages his battle to expel children of migrant workers from the country. But he himself may soon be expelled from the leadership of Shas, if Rabbi Ovadia Yosef concludes he constitutes a burden.
There's a grain of truth in Yishai's claim that the attacks on him are not motivated by relevant considerations. But he's earned the criticism honestly. When he served in Ehud Olmert's government, he didn't draw the public's wrath because, at the time, peace talks were under way and Olmert himself was the target of widespread attacks. But now, as he serves in a right-wing government that isn't conducting diplomatic negotiations, Yishai has managed to make an overwhelming majority of Israelis thoroughly sick of him.
Aryeh Deri, interviewed on Channel 10, condemned the attacks on Yishai, saying the problems with the fire services didn't start today, and he proposed training yeshiva students to serve as firemen. A typically brilliant move on his part: On the one hand, he portrays himself as a sympathetic patron working for the benefit of the Shas electorate, but in the same breath, he nods in the direction of the secular public with his proposal that yeshiva boys be integrated into the labor market. It was precisely this sort of thing that made MK Chaim Amsellem the target of a barrage of condemnation from Yishai.
What needs to happen for Yishai to be pushed out? An ultra-Orthodox source familiar with goings-on in Shas says: "An alliance has to be created between Deri and [Housing and Construction] Minister Ariel Atias, in which Atias agrees to serve as Deri's No. 2. The two of them then have to go to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and sit with him for three hours to explain to him what will happen to Shas if Yishai heads the party in the next election. The moment the rabbi digests this information, they will leave with the keys."
In 1999, when the rabbi was told that Shas would not be part of Ehud Barak's government if the convicted Deri remained at its head, Ovadia replaced him with Yishai, who at that time was perceived by the public as the clean and sane man in the party.
"We mustn't have a part in a right-wing government," says the well-placed source. "Every time we do, we suffer terribly at the hands of the public, and we're punished by being forced into opposition for several years. It's clear to me we aren't going to be in the next government. Maybe not in the one after it either. When we sit in rightist governments, there is non-stop campaigning against us, and when we've got someone like Eli Yishai as our leader, someone who's so extreme and cut off, this causes us tremendous damage. The best solution for Shas is to be in a centrist government and not hold major portfolios that concern people's lives, and yes, to concede to the secular parties on questions of religion. Enough, we can't go on with all this hatred."
Three men and one woman assembled in the press conference room at the Prime Minister's Office. Two of them - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Netanya Mayor Miriam Fierberg - were glowing with satisfaction. The other two - PMO director general Eyal Gabai and Finance Ministry director general Haim Shani - looked gloomy. This is how the ceremony looked for the announcement of Fierberg's appointment as head of the task force formed to assist the victims of the Carmel fire.
The appointment lasted fewer than 48 hours, during the course of which she was asked by the head of the Hof Hacarmel Regional Council, Carmel Sela, to wait in her car during a visit to Kibbutz Beit Oren.
The next time Fierberg has the opportunity to meet with Kadima MK Roni Bar-On, they'll have lots to talk about: Bar-On's appointment as attorney general during Netanyahu's first government also lasted exactly 48 hours.
Why did Netanyahu choose Fierberg? A ) Because he wanted to bring in a skilled and professional woman who could help cut through the red tape. B ) Because she's a Likudnik and supports Netanyahu. C ) Because her experience and seniority as a mayor should help her identify and thwart attempts to swindle funds, an inevitable part of any post-disaster situation that gives rise to monetary claims.
As Fierberg was making her way from her coastal city to the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem at noon on Monday, Gabai and several government ministers were making it clear to Netanyahu that no mayor was going to give them and their directors general any order. Netanyahu decided to go ahead with the appointment anyway.
There are 30 ministers in Netanyahu's government. Five of them, all Likudniks, are unemployed: Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya'alon, a former IDF chief of staff; Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor, who served both as finance minister and justice minister; Minister without Portfolio Yossi Peled, former head of the army's Northern Command; Government Services Minister Michael Eitan, a man who gets things done; and Minister without Portfolio Benny Begin, who is a Begin. None of them had the main qualification: being the sort of supporter and admirer that Fierberg is.
Fierberg's appointment reflects the media strategy formulated at the PMO at the start of the crisis: Let's depict Netanyahu as someone who cuts through the government bureaucracy and goes straight to the field. This also explains his transformation into a TV reality star and his decision to allow television reporters to transmit live from his helicopter as he sat beside his military secretary, Maj. Gen. Yohanan Locker. But he fled from a joint photo with Eli Yishai. As if he were fleeing from fire.
If the Israeli government ministers were ever appointed cops on the beat, every one of us would want the retired police major general, Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch, to be the one patrolling our streets. He's a decent, skilled and serious chap. Yisrael Beiteinu is not his natural environment. He's there because Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman plucked him from civilian life.
On Thursday afternoon, he was sitting in his Tel Aviv bureau. On hearing about the fire, he immediately jumped into his car and headed north on Route 2, the coastal road. On the way, he received the report about the prison wardens' bus that was trapped in the fire and about the three missing police officers. When he reached the University of Haifa, he picked up the phone to Netanyahu and informed him: "I'm starting to work." For four days, he was there with the police. He barely slept.
Aharonovitch served for decades on the police force. In the 1980s, when he commanded the Border Police in the north, he presided over two rescue missions in the city of Tyre in Lebanon, where dozens of Border Police fighters were killed.
"I received pretty good support from the prime minister," Aharonovitch told his inner circle this week. "He made a lot of phone calls to me and also came for visits. I was interviewed a lot in the media. The whole time they were just looking for culprits. Whose head to chop off, whom to hang in the square. I didn't get dragged in. I worked. I know what to do, others don't know. There were a lot of people around who offered help. If some of them had invested one-tenth of the time they invested in giving advice in doing what had to be done before the fire, everything would have looked different."
On Monday, he spoke in the Knesset. He thanked a long list of cabinet ministers: from the prime minister through the ministers of foreign affairs, education, defense, environmental protection and science. He forgot to thank the interior minister. "Dropped by mistake," he said.
Now he intends to demand that the firefighting services be transferred to his ministry, but only after the reform is implemented and only after those services become free of the control of the unions and are no longer subject to political appointments.
"In the past, I also demanded they be transferred to my ministry, because this is a life-saving organization. Then, too, I knew it would be a huge headache, but I thought it was the right thing. It's too bad we needed to lose 42 people in order to understand this."
At the beginning of the week, Aharonovitch made the rounds of bereaved families. "I'm not interested in the gossip about the battle for the position of police commissioner or any other gossip. Only in helping the families," he said.
Someone reminded him that at the weekly cabinet meeting, which was held in Tirat Carmel on Sunday, Netanyahu embarked on a round of thanks to the whole world, including Foreign Minister Lieberman. There was one name he didn't mention, though. Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who was sitting across from the prime minister, whispered to him: "Aharonovitch, Aharonovitch." And then Netanyahu remembered and thanked "Itzik" warmly.
"Were you hurt?" he was asked. "Oy," he responded. "Don't drag me into this."