PM Buckles, Won't Boycott Visit by Fire Victims' Families

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he would be attending the Knesset plenum discussion today on the country's firefighting services, even though many relatives of Carmel forest fire victims are attending, contrary to his office's desires.

Aides in the Prime Minister's Office yesterday said they feared the chairman of the State Control Committee, MK Yoel Hasson (Kadima ), was planning to use the bereaved families as a weapon against Netanyahu during a discussion about the state of firefighting services before the fire.

PM Benjamin Netanyahu
Moti Milrod

Netanyahu had said he would not attend under those circumstances.

Hasson told Haaretz yesterday that half of the families who lost loved ones in the December fire have confirmed they will attend today. He said the PMO, through the Public Security Ministry, instructed the Israel Prison Service not to inform families of the session, and that he personally found their phone numbers in order to invite them.

Most of the fire casualties were prison wardens.

PMO officials, Hasson said, asked to be allowed to choose which families could attend the session.

Relatives have said they intend to use the session to criticize how the prime minister handled the fire. Netanyahu's aides fear a repeat of the official memorial ceremony at Kibbutz Beit Oren in January, when Interior Minister Eli Yishai was forced to leave after angry mourners protested his presence.

Some families were not invited to today's Knesset session at all, including the family of warden Ronen Peretz. His family was among the instigators of the verbal attack on Netanyahu and Yishai at the memorial ceremony.

"I expect Netanyahu to give me answers, but he cannot," Ronen's father, Yehoshua Peretz, said yesterday.

Nava Boker, whose husband Lior Boker died in the blaze, said she hoped Netanyahu would attend today's session.

Sources in the Prime Minister's Office had said earlier that Netanyahu would attend the discussion only if a small number of family members were there. One close aide said that family members were invited at very short notice, after it became known that Netanyahu opposed the move.

Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin yesterday suggested a compromise that would let each organization that lost members in the fire - the prison service, the police and the firefighters - send one representative.

Hasson, however, made it clear that he had no intention of compromising: "I am not negotiating over the relatives' attendance and I do not plan to negotiate over the type and number of bereaved families the prime minister is willing to have at the discussion. I have no intention of helping them divide and conquer, and I certainly do not intend to undermine the basic principle of open discussions in the Knesset that are transparent to all and enable the participation of all relevant parties," Hasson said.

"It is arrogant to argue that the bereaved families are irrelevant to the discussion, and one must question why the PMO is investing so much effort into attempting to set the agenda of a session it knew about weeks in advance."

"It's a transparent political trick on Hasson's part: If Netanyahu attends the session he'll be ambushed by outraged relatives; if he doesn't, he'll be slammed by the public," one MK said yesterday, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The PMO yesterday confirmed the above details.