Defense Ministry’s Refusal to Share Power Harmed Storm Preparedness

A national program charged with relieving home-front emergencies cost government millions of shekels but was shut down due to power-squabbles.

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The state invested 80 million shekels ($22.8 million) in launching the National Emergency Authority, yet that authority was shut down last year – and was no use to the emergency services and authorities as they prepared for last week’s mega-winter storm.

Ultimately, the storm damage – and the failure to respond appropriately – is likely to cost Israel a cool 1 billion shekels ($285.3 million).

The authority was launched at the end of 2007, and spent hundreds of millions of shekels on salaries, conferences and exercises. Even though the defense establishment and the Home Front Command had failed in all respects regarding the home front, the government bowed to defense establishment pressure and created the authority within the Defense Ministry – the ministry that always is lacking funding. Its offices were set up within the ministry headquarters at the Kirya in Tel Aviv, and Zeev Tzuk-Ram, formerly of the Counter-Terrorism Bureau in the Prime Minister’s Office, was appointed the authority’s head.

The National Emergency Authority was allocated 16 staff positions and a 17.5-million-shekel annual budget, most of which went to paying salaries, staging conferences and holding an annual exercise.

Exactly five years, later, at the end of 2012, the authority was shuttered. Some 80 million shekels had been invested in it.

No action plan it developed was implemented during last weekend’s storm - assuming the authority even prepared for such an emergency situation.

Meanwhile, the Defense Ministry staff responsible for the home front began work only on Saturday, after the worst of the storm had passed; they handed out heavy jackets up north.

In a 2007 proposal explaining the need for such an authority, the Defense Ministry explained that it would be responsible for drafting practical strategies in the case of an emergency, coordinating the necessary response from government ministries, suggesting legislation to make emergency response easier, and more. In short, it would be the defense minister’s tool for responding during emergency situations and directing other government bodies when natural disasters and major accidents occur.

In 2009, the authority merged with another body responsible for emergency preparedness, and in 2011 both were transferred to the control of Matan Vilnai, who became Israel’s first home front protection minister. Ehud Barak, then defense minister, refused to give his party colleague Vilnai any of the Defense Ministry’s powers regarding the home front.

Three weeks ago, the Institute for National Security Studies held a conference titled “The Logistical Response to a National Emergency.” One of the speakers was Tzuk-Ram, who left the authority in 2011 to return to the Prime Minister’s Office as deputy head of the National Security Council. He stated that Netanyahu had told him he wanted one person to focus on the home front day and night.

Yet in the current government, Netanyahu gave the home front portfolio to Gilad Erdan, who was already communications minister. Erdan, for his part, was entering a ministry devoid of authority, while the bill establishing the Home Front Ministry’s powers had been buried three years earlier.

At the conference, Tzur-Ram himself forecast the lack of preparedness.

“The definitions of emergency scenarios are known, but the problem is that the leaders don’t always know what the current state of preparedness is and when it needs to be activated, and this is a source of confusion,” he said, noting that this was exactly what happened during the failed handling of the home front during the Second Lebanon War six years earlier.

He also cast accusations at the local authorities. “Aside from 15 to 20 rich municipalities, the rest are entirely unprepared for emergencies. Why? They say one thing: ‘Why should we invest in preparedness? The home front command will come, the army will come, prepare, take action, give, donate.’ So they don’t prepare.”

Israeli soldiers help stranded passengers off of an army truck to a temporary shelter after they had to leave their vehicles because of heavy snowfall in Jerusalem December 13, 2013. Credit: Reuters

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