Following the publication of George W. Bush's book "Decision Points," the United States has again been fiercely debating the merits of its former president and commander-in-chief. Mainly, they have been blasting him for his image and performance while Hurricane Katrina struck and all but destroyed New Orleans. Indeed, Bush's reputation never did recover from that blow.
Speaking with the press on the occasion of the book's release, Bush admitted that Katrina - which affected mainly people who were impoverished to begin with - was the lowest point in his presidency. He mentioned the particularly egregious image - of him sitting comfortably in Air Force 1 observing the ruins of the hurricane: He looks detached, like a child looking at something happening, not a leader.
Another defining moment in his tenure, of course, was September 11, where the victims were in many case well-to-do and well connected. During that disastrous event, four years before Katrina, Bush won kudos. After a few hours of shock, he appeared before the public, confident in himself and his goals - and acted like a leader. The picture that remains in people's memory is of Bush speaking with a megaphone, standing at Ground Zero, talking with firemen who were trying to rescue survivors. To some degree, his jokes and the warm embrace for the firemen in that spontaneous chat lifted the national mood, and support for the president spiraled to new heights.
Two national disasters. Two formative moments. One successful, one damaging.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his advisers are aware of both stories. So on Thursday, when Netanyahu realized the dimensions of the disaster on the Carmel, he put on working clothes earmarked for such occasions - a simple blue shirt, no tie - and went out into the field. He knew that the sight of him there would define his image, his performance, among the public.Deteriorating on almost every front
Wearing his serious face, the prime minister began to issue orders; wearing a softer one, he embraced everyone in his path. From Thursday, he's popped up everywhere: on planes, in the "war room" coordinating the response, at hospitals, at the University of Haifa. He seems quite enamored of his image as the face of the fire-fighting effort.
No question, Netanyahu has handled it well - mainly when it came to arranging help from abroad. The fact that he went out into the field at an early stage helped create the sense of urgency, and underscored the fact that Israel couldn't fight this fire alone. His ability to contact world leaders at the blink of an eye was tremendously useful. When the inevitable inquiry comes around, Netanyahu may well not lose points in the battle over the public mind.
But it is also glaringly clear that the Netanyahu government has been in place for two years and, like preceding governments, is also responsible for this event. Instead of engaging in piddling issues and petty politics, helping yeshiva boys and waging endless arguments over whether or not to freeze construction in areas of contention - the premier and his ministers should be engaged in promoting Israel's success, in preparing for emergencies, in building infrastructures for the long term. It should have the welfare of the citizen uppermost in mind.
Netanyahu boasts not a little about the state of the economy, but the fact is that a closer study shows we are deteriorating on almost every front. Israel's enemies need do nothing more than wait as we destroy ourselves.
Israel is not preparing for the day that the army will have nobody to draft because the state's majority will be Haredi. On the contrary: It is making that day come sooner. The leaders are also not thinking about the minority of people who will have to slave to pay the welfare (and education and healthcare ) bills of the majority of people not working.
Israel is not properly handling the lack of solidarity, the eroding status of the middle class and the social gaps. It is, for example, waiting for the problems of the Bedouin to explode and for the influence of the Jewish community in Washington to wane. It is waiting for the Israeli Arabs to lose their patience over the discrimination they suffer and the lack of investment earmarked for their infrastructure, and for the world to lose its patience with our behavior.
On Friday afternoon, suddenly, up next to Netanyahu popped Eli Yishai, minister of the interior, wearing a white shirt (well, Shabbat was approaching ). Mr. Minister, what have you been doing aside from expelling foreign workers and making sure that poverty gets worse? Yishai now demands a public inquiry into the shocking, shocking failures exposed by the fire. He, like Netanyahu, is better at setting fires than at putting them out.
The prime minister needs to do more than choose shirt colors according to the national mood. He must learn to make unpopular decisions. Unless hundreds of millions of shekels are poured into upgrading the country's fire-fighting systems, the next disaster will be just a question of time. And nobody will be left for him to embrace in front of caressing cameras.
Leadership means making decisions, moving budgets to "boring" places and tackling real problems. This may not photograph well. But it is crucial. We can only hope this fire wakes up Netanyahu, that it tells him: Hey, we're burning up down here. It isn't too late to take action.
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