Netanyahu Opposes Inquiry Into Carmel Fire

PM says a report by the state comptroller, due to be released on Wednesday, and other previous findings on the fire service will suffice.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made clear on Monday that he will oppose setting up a state commission of inquiry to look into poor preparedness for the forest fire that consumed much of the Carmel forest over the last few days, killing 42 people.

Netanyahu told reporters he believes a report by the state comptroller on the state of the fire service, due to be released on Wednesday, and findings by other committees that had looked into the matter over the years, would suffice. "We don't need more conclusions, we need implementation," the prime minister said.

Carmel fire (Nir Keidar)
(Nir Keidar)

Netanyahu had been pressuring Interior Minister Eli Yishai to rescind his support for an inquiry, but four other ministers have since endorsed the idea.

Minister for Minority Affairs Avishay Braverman sent a letter to Netanyahu in which he said the Carmel fire was to decision-making on civilian issues in Israel what the Second Lebanon War was for military issues. "If we don't see what had happened as an earth-shattering event necessitating fearless and unobstructed investigation, the proper lessons will not be learned," the minister wrote.

Braverman also warned that unless Netanyahu acquiesced to the request, he would personally propose the inquiry to the cabinet.

Braverman and Yishai are joined by Improvement of Government Services Minister Michael Eitan, who called for an in-depth investigation of the circumstances of the blaze. Sources in the Knesset State Control Committee told Haaretz that Social Affairs Minister Isaac Herzog and Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat have also voiced support for setting up a state commission of inquiry.

The prime minister told reporters on Monday that he didn't want to deal with recriminations, but with making changes. But he then proceeded to accuse previous governments of neglecting the fire service.

"We know there have been decades of neglect of the fire service," he said. "It has been brought up in many committees, but what's missing is implementation."

Netanyahu spoke at length about the efforts he has made over the past year to improve the state of the fire service, including allocating NIS 100 million for new equipment and beginning the process of looking into an airborne firefighting force. Over the next week, he said, his military secretary, Maj. Gen. Yohanan Locker, will draft a proposal for the purchase of new firefighting planes. Netanyahu also said a national firefighting authority will be set up.

The law provides for more than one way to set up a state commission of inquiry. One is a resolution by the cabinet. Alternatively, the State Control Committee, chaired by MK Yoel Hasson (Kadima ), could force the government to set up a commission through a simple majority vote. The committee is expected to discuss this possibility next Monday, after the state comptroller's report on the fire service has been published.

Sources in the comptroller's office told Haaretz his findings will be grave. Netanyahu had asked that publication of the report be postponed to a date further from the Carmel fire, but to no avail.

Though political observers predicted on Monday that Kadima might well use its leverage in the State Control Committee to Netanyahu to set up a state commission of inquiry, the prime minister's associates were defiant, saying such a scenario would be unlikely. The prime minister met with coalition whip MK Ze'ev Elkin, Cabinet Secretary Zvi Hauser and the Likud's representative on the State Control Committee, MK Ofir Akunis, and the meeting reportedly concluded that as the coalition has a majority on the committee, enforcing coalition discipline in the committee vote would be enough to block an inquiry commission.

The State Control Committee has 11 members. Four are from the opposition - chairman Yoel Hasson, Marina Solodkin and Otniel Schneller of Kadima plus Uri Ariel (National Union ) - and seven from the coalition: Ofir Akunis, Tzipi Hotovely and Carmel Shama-Hacohen of Likud, Ghaleb Majadele (Labor ), Amnon Cohen (Shas ), Anastasia Michaeli (Yisrael Beiteinu ) and Uri Orbach (Habayit Hayehudi ).

Schneller also opposes a commission of inquiry, saying yesterday that such commissions are "recipes for tomorrow's disaster," as they deal mostly with "chopping off heads, and not much else." Instead, he said, the government should concentrate on implementing the upcoming state comptroller's report as quickly as possible.

But Kadima sources said that if the party decides to push for setting up an inquiry commission, Schneller will be pulled from the committee and replaced with another MK.

Hasson, for his part, told close associates that he could still push through a motion for a state commission of inquiry, since the vote requires only a simple majority, and even a baby knows a committee chairman can always secure that.

Meanwhile, police detained a 14-year-old boy from Isfiya on Monday on suspicion of causing the Carmel blaze. According to police, the boy confessed to having thrown a coal from a water pipe onto open ground near the dump where the fire began, and flames from the coal then spread rapidly. Police said the boy told investigators he was frightened by the flames and ran off without telling anyone.

Earlier yesterday, the Haifa District Court accepted an appeal by two other teens from Isfiya against the extension of their remand on similar grounds and ordered them released.