Israel Fire: Six Years Later, Netanyahu Needs to Ask the World for Help Once More

The prime minister's boasts that Israel would be prepared for the next mega-fire, made after the Carmel forest fire disaster, went up in smoke over the last few days.

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Israel Fire: Netanyahu looks at a Boeing 747 Supertanker as it flies over Mount Carmel, near Haifa December 5, 2010.
Israel Fire: Netanyahu looks at a Boeing 747 Supertanker as it flies over Mount Carmel, near Haifa December 5, 2010. Credit: Ronen Zvulun, Reuters
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

Six years after the disaster that was the Mount Carmel forest fire of 2010, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is still scrounging around for firefighting planes. Boasts made in the past that Israel would be prepared to deal effectively with large fires went up in flames over the last two days. Netanyahu rushed to blame terrorists, moving into his comfort zone.

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Israel is well versed in woes and suffering. Its flesh is scarred by bloody wars, intifadas, terror waves and barbaric attacks that have killed and maimed hundreds and even thousands of people. The forces of nature, however, spared its residents until the Carmel fire six years ago, which took the lives of 44 people. The government proved empty-handed and powerless. Apart from a tired fleet of outdated and creaking fire trucks and heaps of courage and devotion shown by firefighters, it had nothing to offer.

Sophisticated air force jets that can reach Iran, drop bunker busting bombs and return home were no help. They can’t drop water or fire retardants on burning hotspots. Israel needed the assistance of many countries – from Cyprus, Greece and Turkey to Italy, Switzerland and Germany, and even Russia and the United States, all of which sent an urgent aerial train of firefighting planes, led by that famous supertanker.

Firefighter planes dump flame retardant on fire in Haifa on Thursday, November 24, 2016.Credit: Ilan Assayag

That traumatic event exposed the dimensions of the shortcomings that had persisted for many years, as well as the helplessness and incapability of one of the most modern countries in the world in fighting a fire that suddenly flared up in a forest full of dry wood and soil, following a prolonged dry period.

The government bore the brunt of the blame. Netanyahu promised to draw conclusions. He promised and delivered. Reforms were carried out in the firefighting service, budgets were increased and the service was transferred from the Ministry of Interior to the Ministry of Public Security. A squadron of firefighting planes was set up and warehouses were supplied with retardants, to the accompaniment of many bells and whistles.

Two years after the disaster, a memorial service for the victims was held, and Netanyahu got up to speak, after being presented as “the first person to realize the magnitude of that event, mobilizing all the services in Israel and around the world to help put out the fire.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Zikhron Ya'akov, November 22, 2016.Credit: Emil Salman

Six years have passed since that fire. The boasting and arrogant commitment that Israel would from here on be prepared to contend effectively with large fires went up in flames over the last two days. Yet again the same tune was heard: Netanyahu was “the first to identify,” getting on the phone to scrounge around for planes from across the globe, including that mythic supertanker (if only attorney Dan Shimron were the representative of the company producing those planes).

Again we had the tours of the afflicted areas, with a novel feature in which our leaders were shown wearing trendy Uniqlo jackets. For a minute one might have thought that the Uniqlos were the new supertanker.

This time Netanyahu laid the blame on terrorism. He’ll always have that option. Even before investigators and general security service (Shin Bet) personnel issued one unequivocal finding regarding the source of the fire, Netanyahu ruled that it was “arson and incitement” that had caused the fires. He promised that law enforcement authorities would lay their hands on the perpetrators. Thus he navigated the discourse towards his comfort zone.

Former Deputy Director of the Shin Bet Yisrael Hasson (currently Chairman of the Israel Antiquities Authority) quickly followed suit, using his former authoritative standing to announce that “this terrorism is similar to using weapons of mass destruction.” Good morning to you, sir. A million and a half years after prehistoric man discovered fire and its destructive force the head of the Israel Antiquities Authority has also made its acquaintance.

Israel fires: Fires burn in the horizon as firefighters battle to control a fire that broke out in Nataf, west of Abu Ghosh, along the border with the West Bank on November 25, 2016.Credit: Ahmad Gharabli / AFP

Assuming that Netanyahu is right and hostile elements started the fires, wasn’t this tool of terrorism of concern to Mr Security, who is surrounded by one of the best intelligence services in the world? If so, why did he make do with the purchase of only 14 firefighting planes and not, say, 140? Is that what’s important now? Talking about the identity of those who lit the fires? The government’s role is to extinguish the fire which led to an unprecedented evacuation in Haifa and to take care of the tens of thousands of evacuees.

It doesn’t matter now how many supertankers could have been bought for the price of a quarter of a German submarine. How many such planes could have been purchased with the funds allocated in the 2017-2018 budget to ultra-orthodox yeshivot (seminaries)? How many modern firefighting trucks could one have been added to firefighting service with the money that will soon be invested in establishing alternative outposts for settlers removed from Amona, Ofra and many other illegal outposts in the West Bank? It doesn’t matter.

When the fires are extinguished we will go back to our usual ritual, playing the blame game, placing responsibility or shaking it off, leading to a prolonged festival of statements including “reinforcement,” “augmentation” and “unprecedented investment.” It will end with a ceremony that will laud and extol the prime minister.

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