Carmel fire: the price of the treasury’s policy

The firefighters’ lack of readiness not accidental, but a result of long-term economical policy.

Last morning, making my Friday shopping at the local grocery, I heard a woman hissing that we should catch those Arabs who lit the fire on Thursday and burn them alive, like the 40 prison guards cadets. I butted in. “And what if these were yeshiva boys?”. “What?” “I said, what if the fire was caused by yeshiva boys, like last time (Hebrew). Would you like to burn them, too?”. She muttered something, paid, and was gone.

And that, more or less, is what protecting PM Netanyahu and his horde of pygmy ministers from popular rage: the knowledge that any failure or disaster would be immediately translated into fear of an external or internal enemy, according to need. The knowledge that Israelis, like the Russians, have been treating their government for a long time as a natural disaster: there’s nothing you can do about it, it’s simply there.

The direct guilt for the shame of our firefighters being left with not enough fire-fighting chemicals belongs to the Minister of the Interior, Eli Yishai, who officially holds responsibility for the firefighters. But Eli Yishai, despite being one of the most despicable Israeli politicians, is not really a minister of the interior, one of the strongest positions in Israel. He is merely Shas’ representative in the Ministry of the Interior. All he’s interested in is how to use the immense power of the ministry to harass non-Jews and promote his friends and family members. He is not a public servant; he is but the servant of Rabbi Ovadyah Yossef. Now he says that for years, he said the firefighters were not getting enough funds, but anyone who followed Shas politics over the years knows this can’t have interested him, not really. If it did, Yishai would have threatened a coalition crisis – as he did numerous times in the past. Such a crisis would have also bought him some badly needed public support. Yishai was not interested in the firefighters because he’s not interested in his office. You can’t blame him for acting according to his nature.

The real criminals are Binyamin Netanyahu and the “treasury boys” – as the young, highly-ideological Treasury officials are often termed. Netanyahu, you may recall, served as Sharon’s Finance Minister, and is now closely controlling the Treasury through his factotum, Yuval Steinitz. As a minister, he gave a famous speech: he spoke of the “slim man”, the private sector, who carries on his shoulders the “fat man”, the public sector. Netanyahu was the great Israeli speaker for “trickle down ecomomics”: the claim that if we lower taxes on the rich, they will make more money and somehow all these riches will trickle downwards. Netanyahu was making those moves during the times of the first Bush administration. Following Bush, who received a treasury with a surplus and left office with a huge deficit, many Americans understood this is voodoo economics; most Israelis, particularly Israeli journalists, haven’t yet.

Under Netanyahu’s watchful eye, taxes paid by companies were lowered and the tax burden of the rich was lightened: the more you made, the greater the bonus the government gave you (Hebrew). If you made 4,000 NIS a month, you’d get a bonus of zero; make 5,000, and you get a bonus of 13 shekels – less than the price of two soft drink bottles. Make 20,000, and you get a monthly bonus of 237 NIS, and if you manage to get more than 50,000 a month, the government will reward you with 554 NIS. Even the OECD protested this scheme (Hebrew), noting that Israel’s disparity of wealth is already way too high. All those gifts to the rich, of course, cost the government heavily in revenue.

And when revenues go down, what the treasury does is cut public services – which they euphemistically term “cutting the budget”. Those cuts, of which there many over the last decades, have repeatedly hit public services – with the exception of that holiest of cows, the defense ministry. Its budgets kept on rising, its workers kept their benefits and retired with pensions at an early age.

So the treasury – which fights with the defense ministry over who will run the government – cut everything else to the bone. Education, welfare, superstructure. Israel is drying for at least a decade – but the treasury still holds back the building of desalination facilities, which of course have been privatized, and does not allow the country to build its own. The power company desperately needs a new power station, but the treasury won’t finance it. Because, you know, this is a public service, something it is improper for the government to fund.

Accordingly, the treasury avoided giving the firefighters the funds they needed to properly function. There are about a thousand firefighters in Israel; the American standard is one firefighter per thousand residents, so Israel needs some 6,000 more firefighters, but they’re not here because, well, firefighters cost money and the priority, according to Netanyahu and his henchmen, is making certain that a CEO will pay less tax. The government even privatized aerial firefighting (Hebrew), but the treasury is constantly shirking its duty and does not transfer the funds necessary for purchasing firefighting chemicals. The budget of the firefighters was not updated in many years, even though the population grows at the rate of 1.8% every year, and the country is drying. As can be seen from this video, MK Shelly Yechimovich (Labor) accused the treasury a year ago (Hebrew) of de-funding the firefighters so that the force will be seen by the public as inefficient, which will allow the treasury to forcibly retire its costly veterans and hire cheaper, younger, inexperienced firefighters.

Israeli blogger Tzvika Bassor reminded us yesterday (Hebrew) that Netanyahu is an ideologue – until his own position is questioned. In order to keep his coalition, Netanyahu didn’t flinch at bloating the government with nine pointless minister and eight useless deputy ministers. This costs 126 millions NIS a year. The cost of the missing firefighting chemicals, depends on who you ask, ranges from two millions to 25 millions.

Netanyahu’s “reforms” – an Orwellian use of the term if ever there was one – did not reduce poverty, as he claimed. On the contrary: they increased it (Hebrew), even among families with two bread-earners. The only sector who benefited from Netanyahu-style economics is that of the managers and the financiers. Unsurprisingly, Netanyahu strongly opposes, at the same time, both an increase in the minimum wage – which would increase consumption and therefore growth – and a ceiling on CEOs and directors’ pay. After all, he and the treasury boys are dutifully serving their kin, those who rank in the upper 1 percentage of earners.

In the meantime, they are destroying the Israeli public service, and all too slowly we understand these are life and death decisions. When there are less doctors in public medical care, when medicine costs more, some of the public cuts down on its health services consumption. When food prices rise, those who can’t afford it consume less, and this influences their health. The government used to subsidize bread; it no longer does. When tycoons like the Ofer brothers disregard ecological and pollution regulations, people sicken more and die more. Sometimes it’s their own workers dying, sometimes other people. When the government’s number of work regulation enforcers is a joke, when the treasury refuses to hire more – and even those enforcers mostly serve Eli Yishai’s religious obsessions – than a huge percentage of employers (92%, according to a 2006 estimate (Hebrew)) will deny their employees their basic legal rights. When there is a shortage of policemen, and those who are employed are paid inadequate salaries, then crime becomes a national danger. When the justice system keeps functioning with the number of judges agreed on decades ago, then there’s no justice, either.

From time to time, a disaster occurs, reminding us we’re living in a South-American style third world country, who has a small number of rich people, a large segment of the population who don’t earn enough to pay income tax, and a rapidly crumbling middle class.

And this week’s disaster, terrible as it may be, will pale before the next expected calamity: a massive earthquake. One of these happens around here – Israel is precariously placed on the Syrian-African Fault – every 80 years or so. The last one took place in 1927. In 2001, an inter-departmental committee estimated (Hebrew) that such an earthquake will cost Israel between 5,000 and 10,000 dead; in 2010, the same committee estimated (Hebrew) that Israel will “in all certainty” experience such an earthquake, and another expert estimated that 96,000 (!) residence buildings will collapse during it, and that most Israeli buildings are not strong enough to withstand it. Israel being a necrophiliac country, some MKs immediately called for the creation of… corpse identification teams, since Jewish law forbids burying people in mass graves. The fact that people will drop like flies was, apparently, of less concern. The journalist/blogger Shachar Ilan covers the upcoming earthquake for years, to little avail.

But as long as the government keeps busy at inciting the Jewish public against non-Jews, be they Palestinians or foreign workers, it can safely assume no one will ask it difficult questions. Ironically, Israeli propaganda used to describe the actions of Arab countries towards Israel in precisely the same way: outward war mongering in order to prevent calls for reforms at home. How beautifully we mesh in the region’s culture.

Read more about the Carmel Forest Fire:

The Carmel Disaster: My forest is on fire, by Ami Kaufman

Israel’s deadliest fire: Eli Yishai must go, by Noam Sheizaf.