The Knesset State Control Committee will discuss tomorrow whether to use its authority to appoint a state commission of inquiry on the fire services, following the state comptroller's report on the subject. The comptroller submitted a harshly critical report to the committee, calling the fire services' lack of preparedness "neglect of the civilian population in an emergency."
The report does not address the Carmel fire, which happened after the report was completed, but a commission of inquiry would deal with the blaze. On the face of it, one might have assumed that it was inconceivable for an Israeli government to prevent the establishment of a commission of inquiry on a matter of such public importance.
Actually, in the country's history, it's hard to find such a great disaster that was not investigated by a commission of inquiry, or at least a lower-level investigative committee. State comptroller reports are meant to examine effectiveness, not necessarily questions about ministerial responsibility or the personal responsibility of senior officeholders.
The State Comptroller Law explicitly notes a case in which the comptroller submits a special report to the committee, and then the committee is allowed, at its own initiative or at the comptroller's suggestion, to appoint a state commission of inquiry whose members are named by the Supreme Court president, to emphasize the commission's independence. For this the law requires only an ordinary majority of participants in the vote.
Once the cabinet, under the prime minister's leadership, refrained from deciding on a commission of inquiry, the hot potato was tossed to the State Control Committee, whose head, according to a fine tradition, is a representative of the opposition. This is meant to emphasize a basic principle in public life: "The controlled does not become the controller." What's more, the committee's advantage is supposed to be its members' broad view, which does not necessarily hew to a certain political outlook.
If there is no change for the better at the last minute, it appears that the committee, through the votes of coalition members, will decide against setting up a commission of inquiry. It will thus be derelict in its duty to bring such a painful issue to an investigation in the most effective way, openly and transparently, unlike the comptroller's examination.
In recent years the State Control Committee has contributed greatly in matters of public importance. The decisions that led to commissions of inquiry headed by retired Supreme Court judges (following State Comptroller reports ) on aid to Holocaust survivors and the evacuees from Gaza and the northern West Bank improved matters considerably.
The committee's chairman, Kadima's Yoel Hasson, was right when he said that "only a state commission of inquiry has the professional authority to formulate a new and good model for the fire services." A proper mandate, drawn up by the commission, would help it avoid protracted discussions about the division of responsibility in the current situation and its application during the Carmel disaster.
What we really need is a proper analysis of authority and to draft reforms for the fire services. A serious commission, headed by a retired senior judge, whose other members will be respected experts, will be able to write a report in a few months. A commission of inquiry also has the authority, exercised by the Matza Commission on the evacuees from the Gaza Strip, to submit an interim report. The government, for its part, can take urgent steps following the comptroller's report that will not infringe in any way on the commission of inquiry's authority.
A Haaretz poll overseen by Camil Fuchs and published last week showed that 54 percent of the public is willing to suffice with the comptroller's report on the fire services and does not support establishing a commission of inquiry. This finding, interesting in its own right, expresses reservations about commissions of inquiry, but it's likely that the respondents didn't realize that the comptroller did not deal with the Carmel disaster at all. A thorough investigation of this existential issue can only be carried out by a commission of inquiry. The State Control Committee has the privilege and duty to decide on it.
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