Disaster as Opportunity

Crises temporarily provide opportunities to make changes that are needed in any case, but are not necessarily feasible under ordinary conditions.

An important test of leadership is how one handles a crisis. It seems Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did a good job of managing the fire, at least in comparison to how U.S. President Barack Obama handled the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Surely Netanyahu will draw appropriate lessons from Israel's latest disaster, though care must be taken to avoid going from one extreme to another - for example, over-investment in firefighting planes.

No less important of a challenge is turning the disaster into an opportunity. Crises temporarily soften the tyranny of the status quo and provide opportunities to make changes that are needed in any case, but are not necessarily feasible under ordinary conditions.

The fire demonstrates that, despite many optimistic declarations, it is necessary to reconsider the protection of the Israeli interior - such as the balance between passive defenses, various forms of multi-layer active defense, deterrence and peace advancement. As this issue is dense with multiple interests, it is difficult to reform it as necessary, but the recent crisis enables the prime minister to charge the National Security Staff with developing a defense of the interior doctrine, as part of a comprehensive strategic view, which is urgently needed.

Coping with fires is an issue that falls under domestic policy. However, Israel suffers from a lack of substantive policies on many crucial domestic issues, largely as a result of breaking them into chunks divvied up between various ministers and parties. Glaring examples include issues concerning minorities and income differentials, which may pose even greater dangers to this country than the Carmel fire.

Root treatment requires regime reforms. But setting up a "Domestic Policy Staff" in the Prime Minister's Office - similar to the National Security Council, with adjustments - can offer substantial help. This will also redress the disproportionate influence of the budget division, which may have been one reason Israel was inadequately prepared to handle a large-scale fire. Netanyahu should utilize the crisis to immediately establish such a staff, as under the present situation ministers will have difficulty resisting it.

A clear lesson gleaned from the fire is that Israel cannot exist as a "state that dwells apart." This has critical implications for its statecraft. However obvious this may be to anyone who can see, more than a few in the governing elite and the public at large are hit by blindness when it comes to this matter. In his role as the enlightening leader, the prime minister should make use of the crisis to explain loudly and clearly that Israel's freedom of action is formidable but limited, and neutralize those who ignore this.

The Carmel fire illustrates for the nth time the primitivism of many of the decision processes in the Israeli government (which are shared by many other countries ) - this includes, but is not limited to, short-time horizons, lagging behind events, tunnel vision and poor handling of uncertainties. My impression is that the prime minister suffers a great deal from most ministers' and Knesset members' lack of capabilities, though he cannot say so and is unable to repair their inadequacies. However, it is possible to improve the situation indirectly by upgrading the professionalization of the senior civil service and developing serious strategic planning within all ministries. Presentation of a master plan for doing so can complement the appointment of a new and high-quality Civil Service Commissioner, linking such initiatives to the lessons drawn from the fire.

Lastly, but very importantly, the issue of personal responsibility must also be faced. It is inappropriate to target the interior minister, while those who were found guilty of grave failures by the Winograd Committee (which investigated the Second Lebanon War ), as well as those who failed in their handling of the flotilla incident, remain active in the public domain with their heads held high. The proper thing for Netanyahu to do is to publicly address the need for ministers and other senior officials to take more personal responsibility, and to ask suitable independent civil society bodies - such as the Israel Democracy Institute or the Movement for Quality Government - to prepare principles for doing so.

With all these requirements, no judicial committee of inquiry can help, however such a committee might be important in other respects. It is up to the prime minister to seize the disaster of the Carmel fire as a small window of opportunity to make essential improvements in governance.