State Comptroller Blames Netanyahu, Yishai for Carmel Fire Failures

Ministers have one month to respond to draft report; State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss yet to determine whether or not to hold ministers personally responsible, sources say.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Interior Minister Eli Yishai, Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz all bear ministerial responsibility for last December's devastating Carmel fire, according to the state comptroller's draft report.

The office of State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss submitted the draft Sunday to every ministry and office criticized in the document, which now have a month to respond.

Netanyahu, Steinitz - 14.8.11
Michal Fattal

According to sources familiar with the report, after Lindenstrauss receives the responses, he will determine whether to leave the criticism of ministers at the level of "ministerially responsible" for the malfunctioning of the bureaucracies they head, or whether to hold them personally responsible for the failures.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak was also criticized, though he was not held ministerially responsible for the fire. Other offices targeted by the report include the Agriculture Ministry, the Environmental Protection Ministry, the Nature and Parks Authority and a list of local authorities.

According to people who have read the 1,000-plus pages, the report censures Netanyahu as the person responsible for the entire government, Yishai as the minister responsible for the fire and rescue service, and Aharonovitch as the minister who oversees the police and prisons.

The censure of Steinitz is not explained; the report barely mentions the treasury and doesn't criticize its performance, people familiar with the report said.

The harshest chapter condemns the Interior Ministry and the fire service, offering pointed criticism of then-Fire Commissioner Shimon Romah. According to a person who read the report, the fire service is slammed for wasting money, appointing cronies and unqualified people to senior positions, and personal use of fire service vehicles.

According to Lindenstrauss, Yishai did not work forcefully enough to correct the deficiencies in the fire service that had been uncovered in previous comptroller reports, nor did he promote the reform of the fire service even though there had been numerous government decisions on the matter.

Without a reform of the fire service, large sums of taxpayer money will simply go to waste, Lindenstrauss said, calling such a reform "as crucial as air is to breathing."

Another long chapter deals with the failures of the Public Security Ministry, which oversees the Israel Police and Israel Prison Service, both of which, Lindenstrauss wrote, flopped badly in the realms of command and control.

The draft reveals serious defects in the coordination between the police and the prison service when the fire broke out. It said these deficiencies contributed to the deaths of 37 prison service officers who were bused in on the first day of the fire to evacuate the Damon Prison.

Though Barak was not blamed for the fire, Lindenstrauss devoted a 40-page chapter to the Defense Ministry, saying that both the National Emergency Authority and the Home Front Command performed poorly. A person who read the report said Barak was criticized for not correcting many deficiencies that had been revealed during the Second Lebanon War, more than four years before the blaze.

The report cites the various ministers for deficiencies relating to budgets, oversight and the execution of plans. A legal source who has seen the report told Haaretz that given the circumstances, the blame Lindenstrauss assigns the ministers already sounds much like personal responsibility, even if it wasn't expressed as such in the report.

The Prime Minister's Office said it would review the report. It also cited the efficacy of the recently formed airborne firefighting force "that has already proved itself in more than 70 fires, including the large blaze in the Jerusalem Forest that threatened Yad Vashem and the Pi Glilot fuel tanks."

Forty-four people were killed in the Carmel fire: the prison service officers and their driver, three police officers, a firefighter, a civilian and a teenage volunteer firefighter. Seventy-four houses were destroyed and another 173 were damaged, while 4 million trees were burned.

Lindenstrauss plans to publish the final report on the anniversary of the tragedy in December. Around 30 people prepared the report.