Probing the Carmel Fire

A commission of inquiry should look into the state of the country's firefighting force, not only into who is responsible for the outbreak of the Carmel fires.

The first official commission of inquiry was convened in 1969 to look into an arson incident at the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. The government decided to set up the commission without delay, on the day on which the fire broke out at the mosque. The investigative panel, recently empowered by the commission of inquiry law, was headed by Supreme Court Justice Yoel Zussman, and it examined security arrangements at the mosque as well as the question of responsibility for the arson.

The perpetrator was apprehended, questioned and put on trial. The commission submitted its report about three weeks after the incident and its recommendations led to changes in security at the site.

Since then, the government has convened 14 state commissions of inquiry. Another three were set up based on decisions of the State Control Committee.

The commissions have examined a range of topics of varying degrees of importance, including the Yom Kippur War, the massacres at the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps in Lebanon and the handling of the civil unrest in the Arab community in October of 2000.

A commission of inquiry should look into the state of the country's firefighting force, which is not the same as an inquiry into responsibility for the outbreak of the fires in the Carmel region.

It is no surprise that documents have already been produced that show that the minister responsible for the fire department, Interior Minister Eli Yishai, had in the past demanded an increase in the fire service budget and that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz were involved in the issue. Yishai has quickly demanded an "examining committee."

It could be that under the pressure of recent events, he wasn't precise in his request and would not object to a state commission of inquiry.

Although members of an "examining committee," as the term is used in Israel, are appointed by the minister in charge, authority to appoint members of a state commission of inquiry is the prerogative of the president of the Supreme Court.

In the face of the argument that has already been raised that the circumstances of the Carmel fires are clear and there is no need to investigate them, it is appropriate to note that a clear advantage of a state commission of inquiry is that its public stature and prestige allow for dealing with problems that had been neglected. In the 1980s, a commission of inquiry headed by Justice Shosana Netanyahu led to a reform of the health care system. A commission headed by Justice Moshe Bejski was the basis of changes to the capital markets.

More recently a commission headed by retired Supreme Court Justice Dalia Dorner resulted in increased support for Holocaust survivors. That is how it works in Israel. Doing the obvious requires a push from a prestigious commission freed of political constraints. A number of commissions have been set up following reports by the state comptroller that have also led to change.

Commissions of inquiry are not necessarily met with foot-dragging. Such commissions are expected to lay the relevant factual foundation, analyze findings, and propose overall systemic conclusions, which is what the Shamgar Commission did regarding security arrangements at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron. An understanding that a commission not deal with the personal responsibility of individuals would avoid drawn-out proceedings.

The convening of a state commission of inquiry need not preclude immediate steps to improve the situation of the fire department. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is actively involved in efforts to put out the fires, must also lead preparations for the future.

The state commission headed by Supreme Court Justice Theodor Or, which looked into the handling of the October 2000 unrest in the Arab sector, made major demands of the prime minister regarding preparations for possible unrest among the Arab population. The commission criticized then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who it said was not sufficiently attentive to changes in Arab society that had created a concrete concern over possible riots.

The commission said he also did not meet his obligations during the October 2000 events in that he refrained from asking the police or those responsible for law enforcement for detailed reports. It appears that Prime Minister Netanyahu has internalized that criticism and took upon himself the difficult task of working on the ground in dealing with the fires and coordinating the activities of various agencies.

A state commission of inquiry would not only examine how various agencies acted after the outbreak of last week's fires. It would also look at general preparedness before the blazes started. The duty of senior officials to demonstrate appropriate foresight is one of the obligations imposed by commissions of inquiry, notably the Kahan Commission, which looked into the Sabra and Chatila massacres.

The prime minister will demonstrate appropriate determination if he immediately presses for a cabinet decision approving a state commission of inquiry that will draw the necessary lessons from the events of the past week.