State Comptroller to Target Yishai, Steinitz in Carmel Fire Probe

The two ministers are expected to bear 'special responsibility.'

The state comptroller's report on the 2010 Carmel fire is expected to determine that Interior Minister Eli Yishai and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz bear "special responsibility" for the outcome of the fire, which claimed 44 lives.

State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss is also expected to state that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch bear "general responsibility" for the outcome, and that the cabinet as a whole is collectively responsible for the disaster.

In addition, the watchdog is expected to impose special responsibility - which indicates a higher degree of responsibility than the general category - on past and present top brass in the firefighting service, the police and the Israel Prison Service.

Lindenstrauss is expected to state in his report that responsibility must not bypass ministers or be placed only at the feet of civil servants.

The state comptroller has said recently that, in principle, ministers may be deemed to bear special, personal responsibility in cases where they have broken the law, acted maliciously or with utter indifference or extreme dereliction of duty.

The fire broke out on December 2 on the outskirts of the village of Isfiya on Mount Carmel and began to spread through the forest. A bus carrying cadets and commanders of the prison service, which was on its way to evacuate prisoners from Damon Prison, was trapped by the flames. The driver and 37 passengers were killed. Three police officers and three firefighters were also killed, among them a teenage volunteer. The fire also destroyed 81 homes, damaged 173 others, and burned some 32,000 dunams (8,000 acres ) of natural woodland, including about 4 million trees.

Work on the state comptroller's 506-page report included interviews of personnel in the police, the prison service, the firefighting service operated by local authorities, the national Firefighting Commission, the Interior Ministry, the Jewish National Fund and the Israel Air Force.

A staff of 30 people from the State Comptroller's Office examined communiques among various bodies during the fire as well as internal records and met with the families of the victims.

With regard to Yishai, the draft of the comptroller's report, released in February, stated that the interior minister acted to obtain more funding for the firefighting service, but said that he had failed to oversee the operational readiness of the firefighting service for a major fire and was not aware of the detailed needs of the service.

The comptroller is expected to impose special responsibility on Steinitz for conditioning funding of the firefighting service on implementation of reforms in the service.

Aharonovitch is expected to be deemed generally responsible because, according to the draft report, serious shortcomings were found in the work of the police and the prison service, which are are under his aegis.

The state comptroller's report is also expected to state that Netanyahu bears responsibility because he failed to handle problems that were brought to his attention. According to the draft report, the prime minister did not deal with petitions from the finance and interior ministers over the state of the fire and rescue services.

Lindenstrauss is also expected to state that declaring the current cabinet responsible does not absolve previous cabinets from collective responsibility for the poor performance of the firefighting service, especially ministers who served during the past decade.