Israel Snowed Under by Giant Egos

The storm that shut down Israel was bad enough, but the absence of a central authority for the home front made it worse.

The harsh weather conditions of December 2010 culminated with the Mount Carmel forest fire that claimed over 40 lives, led to a state comptroller’s report unparalleled in its severity and nearly cost several senior cabinet members their jobs. Three years later, the ferocious snowstorm that claimed four lives and shut down Israel’s capital for three days revealed above all that absolutely nothing was learned from the lessons of the Carmel fire.

At least, nothing was learned about getting past the cabinet ministers' war of egos in order to make decisions. The country should have been prepared for this since the Second Lebanon War fiasco in 2006. Who is in charge of dealing with civil emergencies in Israel?

Here’s the simple answer: No one.

“As matters currently stand, with the authority to coordinate agencies handling civil emergencies not given to any institution, there is still no central body in Israel that has full responsibility and authority ... to integrate home front operation both in ordinary times and in emergencies,” the state comptroller wrote in a report published this summer.

It came six years after the 2007 report that summarized the flaws in dealing with the home front in the Second Lebanon War and two years after the no less severe report on the blunder involved in the Carmel fire. Based on this, it follows that the state comptroller’s plans announced Friday to examine the system’s performance during this weekend's historic snowstorm is a complete waste of time. The comptroller writes reports and everyone carries on as usual.

The latest snowstorm serves as yet another warning regarding Israel’s lack of preparedness for civil emergencies. It's not that the government has failed to devote a lot of financial and administrative resources to protecting the home front. On the contrary, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu personally holds monthly meetings with everyone in charge of homeland security, and last summer even held a series of meetings over a two-week span on the subject, including intensive discussions with Home Front Defense Minister Gilad Erdan and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon. All this was an attempt to settle the ego battle between the two ministers over responsibility for civil defense. The question is whether the Defense Ministry, which has authority over the Home Front Command, should ultimately be responsible, or whether that privilege should go to the ministry specifically set up for this purpose.

With the ministers bickering in front of him, Netanyahu attempted to forge a compromise but dropped the issue after failing to do so. It is telling that the state comptroller’s report from July 2013, the third within six years to deal with serious failings in handling civil emergencies, was paid no heed.

As Israelis were able to see for themselves over the weekend, the Jerusalem municipality and other local authorities were unable to handle the snow, and the police had a hard time keeping jammed roads open. This caused a chain reaction, resulting in long delays in the restoration of power to homes. All this took place even though the government had thousands of well-equipped soldiers from the army's Home Front Command at its disposal, along with heavy mechanical equipment that could have compensated for the country’s shortage of snowplows.

All that was needed was an order for the Home Front Command to get moving. But there was nobody around to issue such an order until at least a full day after the storm broke. Netanyahu decided to leave the Public Security Ministry, which is responsible for the police force, in charge of the crisis, even though it has no authority to use the army and the police were ill-equipped to deal with the storm.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s total disregard of the Home Front Defense Ministry, which was established to manage civic crises, was striking. It raises the question of who needs it in the first place and whether the ministry was created for political reasons rather than pragmatic ones.

These are precisely the question asked by the state comptroller in his July report. The Home Front Defense Ministry was established in 2011 during political negotiations between Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, the defense minister at the time. The Home Front Defense Ministry, which was split off from the Defense Ministry, assumed control over the National Emergency Management Authority, the institution responsible for taking care of the general population during a crisis, and was granted emergency authority over the army and police.

But the Basic Law on the Army states that the military is subordinate only to the chief of staff, who in turn is subject to the authority of the defense minister. There could potentially be an absurd situation in which the defense minister and the home front defense minister give the army contradictory orders during an emergency – but don't worry, there's no chance of the Home Front Command taking orders from anyone but the chief of staff. So the Home Front Defense Ministry basically has no real-life authority.

And as the ministry entrusted with civil defense stands around impotently, there is no other authority to take its place. The police force, the fire department, the Magen David Adom rescue service and, of course, the Home Front Command – each of these operates separately, with several subject to more than one authority during emergencies. Not only is the Home Front Command supposed to take orders from the chief of staff as well as the Home Front Defense Ministry, but Magen David Adom is subordinate to the Israel Police and the Home Front Command and the police are (theoretically) subordinate to both the Home Front Defense Ministry and the Home Front Command.

This intricate tangle of duplicate and contradictory authority, with no single body holding overall responsibility for crisis situations, became apparent during the debacle of the Second Lebanon War. Seven years have passed since then, and Israel still hasn't come up with a solution.

“The failure pointed out by the state comptroller in 2007 wasn’t fixed at the time this review was completed,” the Comptroller's Office said in its July report. “There has been no comprehensive legislative arrangement concentrating all matters concerning the handling of the home front during emergencies and clarifying the hierarchy of authority and areas of responsibility of each of the bodies dealing with home front emergencies and the relationships between them.” Israel, with its abundance of emergency situations, has no law governing how to deal with civil emergencies and who should be doing it.

Neri Horowitz, a former Home Front Command consultant and an adviser to MK Eli Yishai (Shas) in his role as chairman of the Knesset subcommittee evaluating home front readiness, puts it this way: “Governance in emergencies has never been determined.” In the ego battle between Ya'alon and Erdan, Netanyahu avoided making a decision for clear political reasons. Netanyahu didn't want to quarrel with either of these two high-ranking ministers. Now Israel is left with an ambiguous emergency plan that puts no one in charge. All that's left is to wait for the next crisis.

Gil Eliyahu