Playing With Fire

Due to Netanyahu's obstinate determination to destroy Israel's airborne fire-fighting network, and to re-establish it as part of the Israel Defense Forces, the country's ability to deal with fires has been considerably undermined.

A month ago today, amidst much fanfare, the Jewish people officially dedicated an Israel Air Force base for its first fire-fighting squadron in its thousands of years of history. As is the case when war-ships are deemed seaworthy (albeit without the champagne bottles ), honor was bestowed upon the leader's wife, Sara Netanyahu; as though he had signed a commercial contract with sponsors, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a point of mentioning his wife twice in his speech.

The whole production was missing just one small thing - a semblance of connection with reality. Due to Netanyahu's obstinate determination to destroy Israel's airborne fire-fighting network, and to re-establish it as part of the Israel Defense Forces, the country's ability to deal with fires has been considerably undermined. With his own hands, and mouth, Netanyahu has endangered the country, all for the sake of a photo opportunity, a headline, and the image of being an active doer.

Netanyahu, it will be recalled, took leave of the blaze on the Carmel by uttering false prophecies about a "super tanker." As in a children's story, the message was as follows: Have no fear, a great big plane will come, hurl lots of water, and douse the flames.

While the State Comptroller's Office is busy compiling data highly critical of the performance of his government, Netanyahu chose to close his eyes when the fire engulfed the Carmel. He washed his hands of the extant arrangement of having agricultural spray planes standing on reserve, equipped with materials to deal with fires. In order to save some pennies, this arrangement was brought to an end the winter before last, as part of a foolish gamble undertaken months before the Carmel fire; however, were this arrangement to be budgeted and adequately managed, it would serve its purpose well.

Pressured by Netanyahu, the air force entered an area that has been alien to it. The army does not deal with commercial, leisure or police-oriented aviation. Different parts of the empire sometimes have points of tangency, but that is merely to coordinate actions and policy, to ensure that each branch carries out its own work and that there are no collisions. The Civil Aviation Authority must provide professional authorization for every pilot and each airplane. The use of the Iron Dome anti-missile weapon means that all passenger airplanes have to keep out of the sky in a particular area - coordination between civil and military spheres is carried out on such issues, for obvious reasons.

Netanyahu has demanded the establishment of a fire-fighting air squadron within four months. This squadron means the creation of an office with one or two IAF officers, and five or seven wage earners, along with pensions and benefits provided by Defense Ministry allocations. The planes themselves will not be "super tankers;" instead, piloted gliders will be provided, used and maintained by civilians, at a wasteful cost, since they will not undertake other types of assignments.

This doesn't matter; the main thing is that the naive innocents who vote for Netanyahu and who swoon to his English-language speeches receive a stamp of approval from air force commander Major General Ido Nehoshtan, who made a tepid effort to challenge the new arrangement, but was forced to accept it.

Nehoshtan doesn't view this matter as a question of principle. If funding for an F-35 were to be cut off, then he might have a problem keeping his mouth shut, even though the echelon above him has the authority to decide. They want a fire-fighting squadron? Well, they might as well have it, even if it means the air force equips itself with a type of aircraft it has not wanted to utilize in the past; relying on Ehud Barak in the defense ministry, Netanyahu rammed these planes down the air force's throat, using a lack of time and accessibility as excuses.

Making haste to beat the state comptroller to the punch, the planes will be brought from Europe, even though they originate in North America; a hefty commission will go to the Spanish agent and his Israeli representative, a retired combat pilot about whom everyone speaks highly.

The result is that the planes are drawers of water, and the pilots become hewers of wood. The water-drawing capacity of these planes is not suited to Israeli conditions, apart from flights around the Sea of Galilee, and only so long as the pilots are experienced and trained to undertake fire-fighting sorties. Last week, the number of planes ready to be called to douse fires was three, as compared to 14 last year. Also, the concession to supply fire extinguishing materials has been awarded to a civilian concern. The IAF does not control this key supply item.

The individual with supreme responsibility for this mess is Netanyahu, but the air force's willingness to belie its professional ethos and take part in this flying boondoggle is troubling. Perhaps Nehoshtan and his comrades have chosen to concede trivial matters and collect their marbles for a bigger fight.