Carmel Fire Report Calls for Removal of Top Israeli Ministers

Report doesn't call for the ministers resignation, rather it recommends they be given different portfolios, leaving open the possibility for them to remain in the cabinet.

Amir Oren
Amir Oren
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Amir Oren
Amir Oren

The upcoming State Comptroller's Report into the December 2010 Carmel fire disaster is expected to call for the removal of Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz and Interior Minister Eli Yishai from their current positions.

The report, to be submitted to the Knesset next month, will not call for the resignation of Steinitz and Yishai. Instead, it will recommend they be given different portfolios, which will leave open the possibility for them to remain in the cabinet.

Eli YishaiCredit: Shiran Granot

The report is also likely to level harsh criticism, albeit less than that aimed at Steinitz and Yishai, at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for overall responsibility, Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch for partial responsibility, and at the cabinet in general.

Since the release of the draft report last August, Yishai's and Steinitz's legal team have been unsuccessfully working to mitigate the severity of the report with regard to their conduct during the fire, which claimed 44 lives.

This week the state comptroller is to hand the final report to the officials mentioned in it, who have two weeks in which to respond. The report's authors say the responses might change some of the facts, but are not likely to change the conclusions of the state comptroller, Micha Lindenstrauss.

Some officials charged with varying degrees of responsibility by the report will not be greatly affected by the criticism because they have retired from the position they held or entirely from the service that employed them. For example, the commander of the northern district of the police during the fire, Maj. Gen. Shimon Koren; then Fire and Rescue Service commissioner, Shimon Romach; commanders of the Haifa and Hadera fire companies, Arie Regev and Issachar Toami; then commander of the northern district of the Israel Prison Service, Maj. Gen. Miki Halfon; and director general of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, Eli Amitai.

Police chief David Cohen and Israel Prison Service commissioner Beni Kaniak are to be charged with lesser responsibility - the report focuses its critique mainly on the northern districts of those bodies, and does not see the problems as endemic to the system nationwide.

The comptroller's critique of elected officials, as opposed to that leveled against public servants, is not legally binding. Sources in the State Comptroller's Office say that according to precedents, even if petitions are submitted to the High Court demanding implementation of the reports, the court is not likely to rule in favor of them.

Still, sources say a harsh public response to the report will pressure the government to consider its recommendations and draw conclusions about action against the individuals named in it.

Aharonovitch is likely to be considered only partially responsible because, while the police and the Prison Service are under his aegis, the Fire and Rescue Services is not. The Public Security Ministry was given responsibility for the Fire and Rescue Services only after the Carmel fire.

A large team worked on the report last year, headed by Boaz Aner, deputy director general of the State Comptroller's Office and director of the office's Tel Aviv branch. Other workers included Liora Shimoni, Aner's chief aide, and Tzahi Sa'ad, the State Comptroller's Office bureau chief.

The section on the responsibility of the various ministers was written by Lindenstrauss himself, who made use of comparisons to the British, American and other systems with regard to ministerial responsibility.

In an interview for an internal publication of his office, Lindenstrauss explained the concept of a public servant's personal responsibility: "It means public servants can expect personal sanctions if they break the law, act maliciously, with complete indifference, negligently or close their eyes. The greater the failure of the public servant, the greater the demand for personal responsibility, Lindenstrauss said.

The report will apparently say that Yishai's key error was in defining the state of fire preparedness as "catastrophic" in his own words, but not considering the danger to human life as a reason to threaten to resign from the cabinet if his demands to fund the Fire and Rescue Services were not met.

Lindenstrauss also apparently deems Yishai responsible for not having money within the Interior Ministry's budget moved to the firefighting service.

With regard to Steinitz, Lindenstrauss is likely to state in the report that the finance minister exceeded his authority and contravened cabinet decisions by preventing funding from reaching the Fire and Rescue Services by conditioning that funding on service reforms.

The report notes that relatively small sums could have reduced or prevented the fire's damage. For example, the annual cost of weather prediction is only NIS 40,000 and a firefighting plane on standby for one hour costs $200. Standby status for firefighting planes was halted two days before the fire.

Lindenstrauss is expected to charge ministers with a new and greater level of responsibility for the Carmel fire than that leveled at ministers in other notable prior probes. For example, the Agranat Commission, which investigated preparedness for the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the three disastrous initial days of that war, made do with charging Prime Minister Golda Meir and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan with "ministerial responsibility." The Kahan Commission, which probed the 1982 Sabra and Chatila massacre in Lebanon, attributed "indirect" responsibility to the defense minister Ariel Sharon and recommended that Prime Minister Menachem Begin remove Sharon from his post.

In the upcoming report, Lindenstrauss is expected to attribute more direct and greater responsibility to ministers for failures within their ministries with regard to the Carmel fire.

After the Kahan Report was submitted, the Begin government accepted its recommendations, but due to some ambiguity of the wording of its recommendation to fire Sharon, the defense minister was removed from that ministry but allowed to remain in the government as minister without portfolio. If the Netanyahu government decides to accept the Lindenstrauss report, Netanyahu might decide on a cabinet shuffle, removing Steinitz and Yishai from their ministries and giving them other ministries instead.

Lindenstrauss' probable attribution in the upcoming report of personal responsibility to ministers conforms to his approach since the beginning of his seven-year term, which ends this summer. In an article for the State Comptroller's Office internal publication, the Carmel fire report's authors, Aner and Shimoni, wrote that Lindenstrauss had set, as a strategic goal, "that for purposes of deterrence, the names of public servants who contravened the law would be published and personal responsibility would be attributed to them in the matter."

Aner and Shimoni also said a comptroller's report had "special effectiveness when it united the public and the media in a demand to implement its recommendations."

Read this article in Hebrew

Yuval SteinitzCredit: Moti Kimche
Micha LindenstraussCredit: Olivier Fitoussi

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