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Israeli Fire-Fight And Netanyahu Dominoes

Public Outcry For Sacking Of Interior Minister Eli Ishai For Fire Department's Incompetence In Fighting Haifa Fire

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu Dependent On Support Of Ishai's Shas Party

U.S. Failed Attempt To Persuade Netanyahu To Extend Settlement Freeze Leading To Growing Demand In Labor To Quit Cabinet

Benyamin Netanyahu (Photo: Amit Shabi)

 In Israel, Prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu to staving off demands for the resignation of Interior Minister Eli Ishai, who is seen as bearing most of the responsibility for the Fire Departments' failure to cope coping with the disastrous fire on Mount Carmel near Haifa. IsraCast analyst David Essing says that if Ishai is forced to go a domino effect might topple Netanyahu's government. The U.S. failure to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks is already creating more pressure on Defense Minister Ehud Barak to take the party out of the coalition.

 The devastating Haifa fire has been extinguished and now the political fire-fight rages in Israel. Who, if anyone, will take responsibility for the pathetic state of Israel's fire departments that were incapable of dousing the flames? For years Israel's fire service has been grossly undermanned, lacking equipment and politically mismanaged. . Taking most of the heat is Interior Minister Eli Ishai, leader of the Shas ultra-orthodox party, who bears ministerial responsibility for the fire departments. There have been calls from the opposition, the bereaved families and from the media for either Ishai's resignation, or his sacking by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Ishai has defended himself by saying: "I sounded the alarm" by warning the fire service desperately needed a bigger budget for more manpower and equipment.

Fire at Carmel Mt.

Although State Comptroller Mica Lindenstraus has just issued a scathing report on the past situation that also points the finger at other government leaders including Netanyahu, Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz and Defense Minister Ehud Barak - it lays the primary blame at Ishai's door. Now fighting for his political life, the Shas party leader also argues that he is being singled out because of his Moroccan origin and his being an ultra-orthodox Jew. His critics reply that Ishai knew how to bang his fist on the table and demand additional public funding for Yeshiva students, but not for his firemen. The fact that Israel had to appeal to foreign countries for aircraft and chemicals cries to high heaven. If there is any meaning to ministerial responsibility in Israel's parliamentary system, Ishai should go. However, it is the practice of Israeli cabinet ministers never to resign for debacles, and this crosses party lines whether Left, Right or Center, 'It's just NOT done!' (Even after the failings of the Second Lebanon War of 2005 Defense Minister Amir Peretz did not resign - he remained in office for a year or so before he deigned to step down). So why doesn't Prime Minister Netanyahu bang his fist on the table and repeat President Harry Truman's memorable words: 'The buck stops here!' Clearly, Ishai is an abysmal failure as a cabinet minister and should be fired, so why doesn't Netanyahu do it? Well, if he did, Shas would bolt the coalition and possibly start the dominoes falling for Netanyahu's government.

For months rumbling is growing inside Left Wing Labor for quitting the cabinet over the PM's refusal to extend the settlement freeze. So look for the Israeli version of a political 'perpetual motion machine'. Everyone has started passing the buck so it ends up nowhere and with Likud ministers telling the public: 'The mess in the Fire Department has existed for years and under numerous governments, so we're all to blame!' And indubitably, if everyone is to blame then no one is. (Except maybe Israeli voters who put up with such a deplorable state of affairs). So why do they? Many Right wingers are obviously incensed over Ishai's negligence in the Haifa calamity but they are likely to look the other way. They have a vested interest in preserving the Netanyahu government because of its support for settlement building In the West Bank. In this case, Henry Kissinger's reported observation: 'Israel has no foreign policy only domestic politics' works the other way round. Therefore it is likely the foreign policy consideration of West Bank settlements will be the overriding factor for Right wingers when it comes to a domestic decision about firing any government officials. This is likely to apply to the Knesset State Comptroller's Committee that is to vote on whether to conduct any independent inquiry that might recommend the dismissal of government officials. Another avenue might be Israel's Supreme Court. The independent Movement for Quality Government is to petition the Supreme Court requesting that the prime minister fire Ishai for negligence but this appears to be a long shot.

Tzipi Livni (Photo: Amit Shabi)

Opposition leader Tzipi Livni of Kadima has demanded that Netanyahu himself now resign. In a hard hitting public speech, Livni charged the Prime Minister bore the ultimate responsibility. How could Netanyahu, who was been warning of a 'decisive year' with Iran, failed to prepare the country for a big forest fire let alone a bitter military confrontation. On this score, it should be noted that the outgoing chief of IDF intelligence has warned that any future war would involve fighting on several fronts against multiple enemies and that the home front would be hit harder than ever before.

On this score, Defense Minister Ehud Barak has warned: "No one should have any delusions that the latest negotiations with Iran will dissuade it to halt its nuclear weapons program." In a briefing to the Knesset Foreign Affairs & Defense Committee, Barak said there was now an international consensus that Tehran was bent on building the bomb. However, Israel's assessment was the Iranians were closer to the bomb than most other countries believed. On a personal level, the Labor party leader said his conscience was clear about serving in the Netanyahu cabinet because he did more for the country as defense minister than he would in the opposition. But Barak will now face more flak inside Labor after the U.S. announced its failure to extend the settlement freeze as a means to reviving the Palestinian peace talks. Offer Anie, the powerful Histadrut trade union leader, has demanded that Labor resign from the government, if Netanyahu did not bring Kadima into the cabinet in order to extend the settlement freeze and renew negotiations with the Palestinians. Barak also saw those talks as being in Israel's national interest and, with Netanyahu's blessing, has again traveled to Washington to discuss the issue with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Unless negotiations are resumed, Labor's days in the cabinet may be numbered no matter how much Ehud Barak wants to keep his job of defense minister.

David Essing

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