Israel — Interior Minister Eli Yishai is fending off criticism and laying blame on the government for neglecting the Fire and Rescue Services ahead of a state comptroller report on the matter slated to be issued in the coming days.
During a discussion at the Knesset’s Economic Affairs Committee Yishai explained why he should not be held accountable for the failures that facilitated the Carmel fire disaster. “In democracy, after a minister fights and his positions are not accepted and the government makes another decision, the collective responsibility for the outcome must lie with the entire government,” he said.
In attendance at the debate was State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss who said his office does not have the power to enforce its own recommendations.
Yishai presented a more restrained version of his demand to hold a commission of inquiry to investigate the disaster and explained that his demand did not stipulate the type of committee that should be set up.
He proposed that the Interior Ministry present all the written and documented material on its campaign to boost the Fire Services layout during his tenure. “The firefighting state was at the top of my priorities since I returned to the Interior Ministry. More discussions and letters were issued on it than on any other item on the agenda,” he noted.
“I warned in every discussion on the Home Front state that the Fire Services are ill equipped for a state of emergency,” Yishai said. “I began stating the accurate truth back in 2002 when I opposed a proposal to cancel aerial fire extinguishing services. I warned of a mass catastrophe and demanded that aerial aid stay in tact. But the ministers, apart from the Shas ministers, were in favor of the cancellation and the government’s decision is what counts.”
Yishai again lay the blame on his predecessors, former interior ministers Avraham Poraz, Ophir Pines, Meir Sheetrit and Ronnie Bar-On. “When I returned to the government I held a series of discussions with the prime minister and defense minister and the issue was raised in every discussion. I was always concerned with saving human life.”
The minister noted that his request for a NIS 570 million ($157.16 million) budget addition for the Fire Services was first raised by him during the current administration’s term. Two weeks ago the government approved the transfer of NIS 100 million ($27.57 million) to firefighters, however it will not be six months to a year until that the Fire Services will able to use the funds.
“I also spoke to a factory manufacturing fire extinguishing materials and discussed the need to purchase airplanes so that people could be rescued from tall buildings,” Yishai noted.
‘Where was the media?’
Referring to the question he was asked during the fire disaster on why he worked on other issues like the children of foreign workers and yeshiva student stipends, he said: “I dealt with a variety of issues. A minister should never only engage in one issue that the media is interested in.”
Knesset Member Moshe Gafni also referred to the media attention issue and said that several discussions were held on the fire services issue during his stint as chairman of the Knesset’s Internal Affairs Committee.
“Warnings of a national disaster were heard in these discussions,” he said. “The media devoted about a line and a half to these discussions and warnings. Not one minute of air time was given to the matter on TV.”
Earlier in the debate, Yishai discussed his ministry’s budget, which stands at NIS 4.6 billion ($1.27 billion). The Fire Services budget for the next two years stands at NIS 630 million (compared with NIS 580 million now). The funds are divided between the government, the local authorities and the services’ own income from various fees.