Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Trees Don't Vote

The recent mega-blaze in the Carmel forest was partly the blame of the JNF.

JNF planted pines because they were fast growing. Trees, according to old Turkish law, were taxed; so many pre-State Arab landowners uprooted their trees to avoid the tax. This was why Israel was partially barren when the State was declared. In Arab custom planted trees are proof of ownership of land. Also, shade and foliage were needed to prevent erosion. Pines were chosen. Recently the choice of pines was questioned since the cones and spurs from the pine are highly acidic and prohibit other plant life anywhere near them.

That said, pines are what were planted, and as most people know pines are used as starter wood for a fire, then cedar or oak or olive wood to keep the fire burning long-term.

The JNF is now out and raising money to replace the pines. The JNF chief was on the air last night saying over 50,000 dunam (about 13,000 acres) of trees went up in flames. The UJA is also running a campaign to raise money for relief. What money and what relief? I didn't look at the JUF campaign pleas, yet. Hopefully they'll pay for fire-fighting planes and fire-trucks. The real problem is the fire department itself. No fire fighters' school exists. Scarce and out-dated equipment, and lack of staff are the norm.

Last night a group of fire fighters appeared on TV sitting around, taking a breather. They responded to the reporters’ questions about salaries, stating that they hadn't received a salary in two months. Another report on another channel had a fire-fighter explaining that many appointments to the fire department are political, either Likud, the ruling party, or Shas, the party that controls the Ministry of the Interior, that controls the fire department, with inexperienced appointees filling positions required by professionals. These and other disturbing facts are now pouring out.

Bit of background. The political struggle going on now to avoid blame for the tragedy is in early stages. As was said above, the fire department falls under the umbrella of the Ministry of the Interior. Shas leader Eli Ishai is the Minister of that department. He is being attacked for not doing anything for the fire department. He claims he did. Memos and such are produced to verify his claims. Commentators say that these 'behind covering' memos are standard procedure. The paper is there but no one does anything about it.

Ishai said he fought for 500 million shekels (about US $138 Million) for the fire department but was only given 100 million shekels (About US$$ 27 million). Truth is he didn't fight very hard. The fire department workers went on strike a while ago, not one minister really paid attention. Following the War In Lebanon II, when a good hunk of the upper Galilee was set ablaze by Hezbollah rockets, and the inability of the fire department to cope with the blaze became evident, a government report was issued stating plainly the fire department was weak in so many areas a disaster was waiting to happen.

But who pays? Trees don't vote. Shas leader Ishai fought for money for Yeshivot, and other ultra-Orthodox causes, but did little or nothing for the fire department. Remember he has one budget for his ministry and that has to be doled out to the elements in his constituency to keep them happy and voting. Like I said, trees don't vote.

A fire-fighter officer told an Israel TV reporter that the money from the Ministry of the Interior for the fire department, the same ministry that funds the local municipalities, is turned over the local government bodies. But these government bodies are chronically short of cash, and use the money for other shortfalls, not to pay fire fighters' salaries, or buy equipment.

This produces a situation where one firefighters' salary, or even half-a-salary, is designated for half-a-dozen towns and villages. So one fire fighter is responsible for 40,000 dunams. But in truth there isn't a fire fighter, just a slot on the books, with the money going elsewhere. Ditto for equipment. The result, an understaffed, under-equipped, under-trained fire department incapable of putting out anything but a simple fire in a forest and much better trained and equipped to put out urban factory and building fires, but even then sorely lacking in the right stuff.

Eli Ishai is a very aggressive and wily politician. When interviewed at the staging location during the mega-blaze, he took the offensive, yelling at reporters that he had done everything he could and more. Later he told the press that he was a sacrificial goat, a poor Sephardi right-winger being lead to the slaughter.

In truth the case against Ishai is not racism but government priorities. The needs of the fire department have been common knowledge for at least a decade, but no one was willing to pay from their budget to upgrade and staff and pay for the necessary equipment. Now Ishai says he's been asking that the fire department be moved from the Ministry of the Interior to Homeland Security, but no one did anything about his request. A request is even on the books for a fire-fighting plane. But no plane was ever bought. In fact, the Army once had a special unit to fight fires, but the unit was disbanded.

Moving the fire department on paper is easy, but assigning a tangible budget is another. Should Eli Ishai manage to move the fire-department to another ministry he will have passed this hot potato to another ministry, but then the question is will another ministry treat the situation any differently?

The answer is 42 and counting. That's the number of people killed so far by this fire. Three others are still in critical condition. The deaths of these hapless victims push a mundane bureaucratic issue into another realm entirely. Someone commented that after the War in Lebanon II heads rolled. Then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was forced to resign as well as then Minister of Defense Amir Peretz; Army top brass retired. This analyst thought the same thing would happen after this tragic fiasco.

Israel's PM Benjamin 'Bibi' Netanyahu, to his credit, was on the case as soon as it was clear that the forest fire was beyond the capabilities of the Israeli fire department. He phoned abroad and over 30 countries agreed to pitch in, sending planes and manpower. Even Greece and Turkey, who hate each other, joined in the effort and worked together. And remember Turkey, at odds with Israel over a variety of issues, also surprised the locals by lending a hand. The Israel government also hired a US based "super-tanker" Boeing 747 capable of dropping 92,000 liters of fire-retardant in a single pass. Russia donated two smaller planes, each with 30,000 liters of material. It was these planes, along with the scores of others from around the world that helped contain the fire.

Now Bibi has gone on TV and committed his government to the purchase of two or three of the fire fighting planes like those sent by Greece and Turkey. Bibi also promises a new renovated fire department. Perhaps he'll actually do something about his promises.

But the problem behind the fire is Netanyahu's government. Eli Ishai represents Shas. That party is like a hungry child devouring whatever comes within reach and asking for more. It is not that the move is on to oust Eli Ishai, the move is really to oust Shas.

The Shas' outlook hurt Israel when a group of Christian evangelists offered to buy modern fire trucks some months back. According to the Jerusalem Post Eli Ishai turned them down because of religious reasons. Analysts say that should Netanyahu reform his coalition and replace Shas with another party, one that has members who pay taxes and serve in the army, then perhaps the massive split forming in Israeli society will be healed.

Meanwhile Bibi Netanyahu is reportedly concerned about keeping the ultra-orthodox parties in place should he succeed in hammering out a peace agreement with the Palestinian Authority. Netanyahu is counting on the ultra-orthodox, who are being well-paid now from the government budget in the form of subsidies to their yeshiva students and other perks, to vote for his plan when the time comes.

Pundits think that better perhaps would be for Bibi to discard the ultra-orthodox and take his chances with a moderate non-religious party. But, according to informed sources, Bibi thinks of history, and his place in it, and the history books won't write about him for saving trees, but will write about him for making peace. Is this philosophy shortsighted? According to Wikileaks the Americans and many Arab countries consider the Palestinian issue a huge stumbling block to dealing with the Iranian issue that nearly everyone apparently consider highly volatile. The push for a PA/Israeli peace treaty is considered a necessary precursor to dealing with Iran. Should this attitude change, say the analysts, then Bibi would rethink the make-up of his government coalition.

Commentators say that a new coalition would change the way Israel behaves towards its own citizens: forcing the ultra-orthodox to go to work, join the army, pay taxes. This change would, according to analysts, insure Israel's viability financially and defensively for years to come. But can this change be accomplished under US pressure to make a deal with the Palestinians? Apparently Bibi doesn't think so. This means, according to pundits, that Shas and the other ultra-orthodox parties supporting Netanyahu in the Knesset will continue to get their way, receiving money funneled to yeshiva students (many of whom are fictitious, used as a way to gain more money for the yeshivas) rather than the university students or even the fire department.

After 80 odd hours the physical fire was out but the political fire was smoldering. Bibi acted decisively, unlike George W. Bush during Katrina, nor Barak Obama during the oil spill. Perhaps this decisiveness will save his political hide even though he knew about these fire department shortfalls for years.

Eli Ishai has been calling for a commission of inquiry knowing he has the paper to cover his behind. Analysts say these commissions take months to form and a year to study the material and another half-year to reach conclusions that rarely have any real effect.

However, the irascible State Controller Michael Lindenstraus is preparing his own report on the shortfalls that caused the disaster. This may well fan the smoldering political coals and create a new and powerful fire department capable of handling a fire and preventing it from becoming a mega blaze.

Trees don't vote. That's been the problem. But over 40 deaths justifiably have gravitas. Will that bus tragedy change a government?
Time will tell.