Prime Minister Evasive Over Whom to Blame for Deadly Carmel Blaze

Ministries accuse each other amid expectations of inquiry committee.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu avoided answering questions over the weekend from journalists regarding the circumstances that led to the inability to cope with the Carmel forest fire, asking them to concentrate on the immediate firefighting efforts instead.

The prime minister, Interior Minister Eli Yishai, deputy defense minister Matan Vilnai and other politicians appear to be preparing for the inevitable inquiry, with each man claiming he had warned about the neglect of the fire and rescue services well in advance.

Israel's Fire and Rescue Service operates under the Interior Ministry because it answers to local authorities rather than national headquarters. Sources close to the prime minister told Haaretz said that removing the service from the authority of the Interior Ministry and setting up a national firefighting organization was one of the first steps likely to be taken in the aftermath of the Carmel fire.

Firefighting in Israel has been under-budgeted for decades. According to information from the firemen association, Israel has one fireman per 7,000 people, compared with a European standard of one per 1,000 to 1,200 people.

A few months ago, the association set up a website demanding more funds to buy equipment; the site displays pictures of firemen with their hands shackled, along with pictures of the near-antiquated firetrucks, some dating back to the 1970s. The site's motto runs: "Finance Minister Steinitz is playing with fire."

But at the Finance Ministry, officials were quick to push the blame onto the interior ministry and its minister, Eli Yishai.

"In the run-up to the budget for 2011-2012, Eli Yishai did not make any demands to increased funding for the fire and Rescue Service," one senior treasury official told Haaretz. "Yishai is a veteran minister. He knows full well how to get budgets for issues he holds dear, and if he thought the firefighters needed money, he knew how to get it. He fought tooth and nail for extra budgets for religious seminaries for his own ultra-Orthodox community." Yishai, who has faced calls that he resign since the full scale of the blaze became apparent, arrived at the cabinet meeting prepared to fend off the attacks and spread the blame to other ministries and earlier governments. "We must set up an inquiry committee," Yishai told reporters outside the meeting room. "All factors must be looked into."

Ministers who took part in the meeting slammed Yishai's speech as a "cover-up" and said he proposed declaring a "special situation" on the home front, which would allow the authorities to shift responsibility to the Defense Ministry and the Israel Defense Forces.

Yishai was absent from the prime minister's press conference in Haifa, even though he spent the last two days in the city. He had spent all Thursday in the command room, only leaving it at 3 A.M. on Friday morning and returning later until Friday noon.

He then retired for the weekend, with sources close to him saying this was not the situation of imminent risk to life that would justify the disregarding of the Sabbath, as during a war. He returned to Haifa last night.

The interior minister spent much of the past few days rebuffing the allegations that he didn't do enough to secure funds for the neglected fire service. "On the very day I took office, I sent a letter to the prime minister and finance minister demanding half a billion shekels for staff and gear for the fire service," Yishai told Haaretz.

In December 2009, interior minister director-general Gabi Maimon sent a letter to his counterpart at the Prime Minister's Office, Eyal Gabai, warning of an urgent need to pump more funds into the fire service. "It's urgently needed to implement the government resolution on setting up a nationwide firefighting organization," the letter said. "The need stems from estimates by the security apparatus of a military escalation in the summer of 2010."

Several months ago, the fire service got an extra budget of NIS 100 million. Yishai told Haaretz at the time it wasn't enough, but transferred the money immediately.

The prime minister, meanwhile, refuses to blame Yishai and would not comment on setting up an inquiry committee. But sources close to Netanyahu said the prime minister has been planning for several weeks to buy firefighting airplanes.

Netanyahu has also begun a rapprochement with Turkey, following that country's help in fighting the blaze on the Carmel. A senior Israeli official told Haaretz that Netanyahu had sent the Israeli delegate to the UN inquiry committee investigating the raid on the Gaza aid flotilla, Yosef Ciechanover, to Geneva, where he is to meet with director-general of the Turkish Foreign Ministry, Feridun Sinirlioglu.

The Turks are demanding an Israeli apology for the killing of Turkish nationals in the raid, and compensation for their families. Both issues seem likely to be discussed in the Geneva meeting. The prime minister's office said there were talks with Turkey on ending the crisis between the countries, but refused to give any further details.