Sources: Ministers Won't Step Down Over Carmel Fire

Recommendation that they be given different portfolios is expected to form part of State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss' report of government's handling of Carmel fire, which killed 44 people in December 2010.

Associates of Interior Minister Eli Yishai and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz reacted with outrage yesterday to a Haaretz report stating the state comptroller is expected to call for the removal of both ministers from their current positions over their conduct during the worst forest fire in Israel's history.

The recommendation that they be given different portfolios is expected to form part of State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss' report of the government's handling of the Carmel fire, which killed 44 people in December of 2010. The report is due to be submitted to the Knesset next month.

From left, Yuval Steinitz, Eli Yishai and Moshe Kahlon, January 29, 2012 - Emil Salman
Emil Salman

Sources in the Finance Ministry told Haaretz the treasury had allotted NIS 1 million for the purchase of fire trucks, but said the money wasn't used for that purpose.

"The comptroller's recommendation to oust Steinitz is completely absurd, a bizarre decision, total stupidity which has no precedent in Israel or abroad," said an associate of Steinitz's. "What if there were a pileup in the Negev? Would the transportation minister say, 'I asked for funds but the finance minister refused, so it's his fault?'"

Sources close to Yishai said the interior minister has no intention of stepping down.

"The comptroller is promoting a policy [according to which] any minister that does not get what he wants must resign," one of the sources said. "For example, [Deputy Health Minister Yaakov] Litzman must step down, or at least threaten to do so, because there aren't enough beds in the hospitals."

The ministers' associates also took issue with the leak of the report.

"The leaks coming out of the comptroller's office are illegal, and they also did not exist in the past," one of the sources said.

Minister Moshe Kahlon (Likud), who is considered the most likely candidate to replace Steinitz as finance minister, said yesterday he wasn't interested in the post.

The Prime Minister's Office refused to comment before the report is officially released.

Political sources said yesterday that Netanyahu might be willing to oust Steinitz, but wouldn't want to risk a confrontation with Shas, which Yishai heads.

Last night Channel 2 television aired a recorded meeting between Lindenstrauss and families who lost relatives in the fire. Lindenstrauss is recorded saying the ministers were his first target.

"Anyone who doesn't comply with the comptroller's recommendations will find himself in a difficult situation, publicly and otherwise," the comptroller said in the tape. "Anyone who doesn't comply can face disciplinary action by law."

Opposition MKs were quick to lay the blame for the fire on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as Steinitz and Yishai.

"The Carmel fire disaster is not a mistake, but rather the result of a policy," said MK Dov Khenin (Hadash ). "Netanyahu, the father of all cuts, who suffocated the public health system, liquidated public housing and starved welfare services is the one who led the cuts in the firefighting services and therefore should be the one to resign."

Labor Party leader MK Shelly Yachimovich said this was the first time the comptroller had highlighted the treasury's destructive habit of holding funds from essential national services, in an effort to pressure them to agree to privatization or other changes.

"From published records one can clearly conclude that the drying up of the firefighting services and the criminal recklessness in regard to human life wasn't done unintentionally but rather with malicious intent: to rape the services until they accept a 'reform' no one knows anything about," said Yachimovich.

In addition to targeting Steinitz and Yishai, the report is also likely to level harsh criticism against Netanyahu, Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch and the cabinet in general.