Eli Yishai Dec. 3, 2010 (Hagai Frid)
Interior Minister Eli Yishai overseeing the firefighting efforts from the Haifa University situation room, Dec. 3, 2010. Photo by Hagai Frid
Text size

Interior Minister Eli Yishai is one of the cabinet's most combative members. He knows how to fight for what is dear to him: one pro-Haredi law after another, more religious coercion, more allocations for yeshiva students, more stringent conversion procedures and minimum fuss over women who shirk army service. When it comes to these topics, he always ends the work day with his hands full of loot; and he makes it clear that nobody should mess with him.

When it came to expelling the children of foreign workers, he knew how to hit the barricades.

When it came to squeezing out NIS 110 million for yeshiva students, in defiance of High Court rulings, he invested many hours of feverish discussion in back rooms. On the other hand, when it comes to matters that do not make the blood rush through his veins, he is satisfied to issue warnings, write letters and save these documents for a rainy day.

When it came to the needs of Israel's fire and rescues service, he was hardly going to precipitate a government crisis - he issued no threats, nor did he race over to the home of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef to pressure him into issuing a ruling of religious law.

Over the weekend, Yishai's spokesman drowned the media in impressive warning letters formulated by Yishai over the past year. The Prime Minister's Office replied with letters of its own. File clerks in government offices were kept very busy during the 18 months of the second Bibi government. But other than the drafting and filing of letters, very little got done. Yishai can run, but he can't hide between a mound of paper. On the contrary, the letters will merely complicate his situation when he faces a state commission of inquiry, which is sure to be established. For his part, Netanyahu is not guilty, but he is responsible.

The whole syndrome of amateurishness, criminal negligence, and the attitude of "trust me" and "it will be okay," which evolved for dozens of years, seems to be concentrated in this one disaster. During the past three days, citizens of the State of Israel have witnessed a sound and light show, a kind of reality program in which Netanyahu is the star. It is hard to think of another case in which the helicopter rides of a prime minister, or his conversations with his army secretary, were featured in live broadcasts seen in every home in the state. To Netanyahu's credit, it must be said that he grasped the gravity of the situation from the start, unlike the example of President George W. Bush during Hurricane Katrina. During the first hours of the blaze, on Thursday afternoon, he started talking about a "national" and "international" crisis, went to the scene of the disaster and was not embarrassed to implore world leaders for assistance.

The international mobilization to help Israel proved to Netanyahu that his mantra, "the world is against us," is not necessarily true. When Israel faces crisis of this humanitarian character, even hostile states come to its aid. And though it has been hard to extract a single complimentary word from President Obama's mouth about Israel, he too rallied support for Israel in this situation. Perhaps Netanyahu now has a chance to seize the momentum, put an end to the crisis about extending the settlement freeze and revive the peace process.