Government in Shell Shock

Nobody can take away from Arkady Gaidamak the good name he made for himself during the bombardment of Israel's north.

The Russian-Israeli businessman, who is under investigation by the international crime squad over alleged massive money-laundering, has become a folk hero for hosting thousands of people uprooted from their homes, in the tent city of Nitzanim. Wasting not a moment as the rockets peppered the north, Gaidamak used his own personal wealth to help where it was needed most: in finding shelter for the people fleeing the north.

One can and should take one's hat off before Gaidamak, and the sorely needed contribution he made. And one could ask how it is that in the State of Israel, a man suspected of grave crimes has attained the status of national hero.

The answer is a trivial one: the state wasn't there.

As the dust of Lebanon II settles, one glaring conclusion is already clear. The government failed miserably at managing the home front. In fact, it didn't even try to manage the home front at first, only starting at the late stages of the conflict.

To the government's credit, it has any number of excuses, the main one being that it never before had to contend with a million people under attack, some choosing to run and some hunkering down in bomb shelters.

The situation was unprecedented.

Unprecedented situations require unprecedented solutions, and that is where the government, headed by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, fell short.

An unprecedented solution might have been, for instance, throwing together an administrative body to handle the problems of the home front. Or perhaps the appointment of a designated minister, with emergency powers taken from other ministers. The Olmert cabinet is certainly richly blessed with ministers and surely at least one of them might have handled the job, designing new powers to handle the new difficulties never seen before.

May the government place a toilet in the bomb shelter of an apartment building in Acre?

The question is not a joke. It was posed by one of the ministries to the Justice Ministry when it turned out that thousands of people in Acre had to spend days and nights in stinking bomb shelters, which had lain abandoned by all but junkies for decades.

By the way, the answer was no: the government is prohibited from upgrading private property. Putting in a toilet would create a dangerous precedent. The apartment building could petition the Amigur housing company or the Jewish Agency for a donation to put toilets into Acre's bomb shelters.

This is exactly the kind of thing that makes people feel the state is bankrupt, and left the home front abandoned to the mercies of aid associations. And these aid organizations did wonderful work, but there was one thing that none of them could do. They could not fulfill the role of the state in being responsible for the welfare of its people, in respect to the civilian front of their lives.

Here and there the government made a gesture to the home front. Mainly, and most importantly, it addressed the difficulties of workers and businesses up north, who had remained bereft of their livelihood. The treasury's moves to organize compensation through the property tax division was impressive. But the thing is, that's about all the government did for the home front.

Finding shelter for the hundreds of thousands of people who fled from the missile attacks, helping to upgrade foul or damaged bomb shelters in private buildings, even helping to bring food and water to people hunkered down in a bomb shelter day and night - the government did none of that throughout most of the war.

An administration. A special minister. It could have been done; at the end of last week the Defense Ministry set up a whole city within 24 hours, with room for tens of thousands, at the Exhibition Grounds in Tel Aviv.

It needed a minister to thump on the desk and bellow that at time of emergency, the government must not refuse to renovate bomb shelters because of arcane items of law.

The home front needs management and strategy just as much as the battle front does. It just wasn't given any.

The government erred in its analysis of the battle front, and erred regarding the home front as well. It must study its errors and learn lessons before the next missile war.