Responsibility, Flight and Its Costs

For the good of the country, Prime Minister Netanyahu needs to agree to establish a state commission of inquiry on the Carmel fire.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu bears supreme responsibility for everything done or not done by his government. That is the first axiom of Israel’s system of government, which accords the prime minister higher status than other cabinet ministers. This, of course, is why politicians aspire to the post. But they want the power without the responsibility − they want only the glory.

The problems within Israel’s fire services have existed for many years and throughout many governments, including the first government Netanyahu headed, in the 1990s, and the one in which he served as finance minister, in the early part of the last decade. But, like all of his predecessors, Netanyahu did not lift a finger to implement the recommendations issued by various commissions and state comptrollers, who were shocked by the situation and issued warnings.

As the decision maker, he decided in favor of a different set of priorities that left serious breaches in Israel’s civil defense with regard to catastrophic fires. As someone who boasted of his past achievements in seeking reelection, and who later prided himself on his economic policy, Netanyahu must also pay the price of his other decisions − about what not to do, what not to change, what not to fund.

Ever since the dimensions of the Carmel fire disaster became clear, the prime minister has opted to give speeches and be photographed, to do a Google search for “supertanker jets” and to appear on the scene as commander of the war against the forces of nature. As this constituted a de facto admission of his supreme responsibility, he cannot now deny his accountability for the circumstances that prevented the flames from being extinguished before they spread.

Realizing that any independent body that would examine the fire services in depth would assign him responsibility, Netanyahu thwarted various initiatives to set up a state commission of inquiry. That is what an experienced politician does if he remembers the lessons learned from his predecessors, including those who escaped direct hits from inquiry panels − like Golda Meir with the Agranat Commission on the Yom Kippur War, Menachem Begin with the Kahan Commission on the Sabra and Chatila massacres, and Ehud Olmert with the Winograd Committee on the Second Lebanon War. A severe report decimates a prime minister’s power and causes or contributes to his departure.

Netanyahu found the right price to buy off Interior Minister Eli Yishai’s support for an inquiry committee, but he cannot do the same with the demands of the bereaved families. Their vocal assault on both him and Yishai at Wednesday’s memorial ceremony for the Carmel fire victims shows clearly that they will not let those responsible off the hook.

Faced with two alternatives that are both bad for him personally, Netanyahu would do better to choose the one that is good for the state: to agree, albeit outrageously belatedly, to establish a state commission of inquiry.