Netanyahu carmel fire
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with head of a Turkish delegation of firefighters who came to help fight the Carmel fire in northern Israel, December 3, 2010. Photo by AP
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Since the outbreak of the huge fire on the Carmel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Haifa fire department spokesman Hezi Levy have been filling our television screens; the entire chain of command between them disappeared. The public has seen the two men handle the disaster, with the others avoiding responsibility. Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch asked that no conclusions be drawn yet, and Interior Minister Eli Yishai called for a state commission of inquiry. Defense Minister Ehud Barak smiled at the cameras.

Netanyahu saw a chance to display authority and responsibility, and was quick to be photographed in the field issuing instructions. He was like former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who stood at the smoldering Twin Towers on 9/11 while President George W. Bush lost control and was late in responding to the massive attack.

Netanyahu, who understands that political leadership relies on image, didn't want to look like Bush during the Katrina hurricane disaster in New Orleans, or like President Barack Obama during the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. So he was quick to take off his tie and get on a helicopter heading north.

Netanyahu is putting together his defense: We didn't prepare for such a disaster, but the minute it occurred, I took command and rallied a fleet of firefighting aircraft from overseas. The Prime Minister's Bureau issued dozens of statements, two or three per hour, documenting the PM's telephone calls to his counterparts abroad and his statements about finding funding and setting up a new firefighting squadron in the air force. Netanyahu likes to communicate like a copywriter, and yesterday morning he offered the "air battle" scenario.

Netanyahu is hoping his energetic response will dampen claims that he didn't deal with the shortcomings. He will have to face Yishai, who may not have managed the crisis but warned for a long time about the problematic state of the fire service. Yishai initiated discussions and asked for funding, and even proposed that responsibility for the fire service be transferred to the public security or defense ministries. He probably realized that his responsibility for the firefighters meant trouble; it's uncommon for ministers and bureaucrats to volunteer to give up departments and budgets.

The defense minister has the "supreme responsibility" for handling the home front in all emergencies, and his ministry contains the National Emergency Authority, established after the Second Lebanon War. But Barak didn't give much attention to the issue and didn't realize the difficulties of the weak link: the fire service. He opted to deal with missile defense, not with those who will have to rescue the people from the missiles that will penetrate the missile-defense shield. Even when the crisis began, Netanyahu put Aharonovitch in charge, not Barak.

Netanyahu, Yishai, Barak, Aharonovitch and fire service chief Shimon Romah will be the main targets of the commission of inquiry to be set up. But it's also important that in the middle of the crisis, a low-ranking and charismatic official like Levy showed the public that not everything had crashed. Someone continued to function under duress.