Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Terra Incognita 121 Why Eli Yishai Must Not Resign

Terra Incognita: Why Eli Yishai must not resign
Published in the Jerusalem Post 12/07/2010 23:51

His departure would add an injustice to the death and ruination the fire left behind. Leaving means walking out on responsibility, not owning up to it.

Last week, after being shocked by initial reports that 40 had perished in a fire on the Carmel, I was glued to the news and Internet trying to find out about the great natural catastrophe.

Always in the back of my mind was the worrying sense that it would not take long for the recriminations and complaints to start circulating.

Sadly the prediction came true. Yossi Sarid, a former education minister and Meretz MK, was the first to chime in. He must have begun writing his op-ed soon after learning of the fire, because it was ready by the early morning of December 3. He titled his rant “Israel devours its own people – this time with fire” and explained to readers that “you don’t have to be a genius to predict horrible disasters... Israel is a stupid, lawbreaking state.”

He appears to have been the first wellknown person to point fingers at Interior Minister Eli Yishai. “I also wrote about the minister in charge, the interior minister who is in no hurry when everything goes up in flames. He relies on God, whose salvation is instantaneous, like the blink of an eye. The minister is ready to set Jerusalem on fire at any moment as well.”

As if taking their cue, the blamers began the mantra: Eli Yishai must be the fall guy.

On December 6 Haaretz’s main editorial screamed: “In the wake of the Carmel fire, Eli Yishai must resign.” The grand poobahs intoned that “Yishai is responsible for the state’s fire-fighting forces, which were insufficiently prepared to contend with the massive blaze in the Carmel... Perhaps this is the way of a religious man, who prays with great intent and leaves the execution to a higher power.”

Noam Sheizaf, writing on 972mag.com declared “if Israel’s prime minister doesn’t show his racist and incompetent interior minister the way out immediately, he should face consequences, too.”

Inane comparisons came fast and furious.

Headlines blared that the fire was the “Yom Kippur War” of the fire services and “Netanyahu’s Katrina.”

Why is the initial reaction so unoriginal, so base, so ridiculous? Why are the comments so personal, castigating the interior minister and making fun of his belief in God? Had he been a secular Jew, or more improbably an Arab, what diatribes would have been cast on him? Yishai has defended himself. He and his friends have argued that the assault on him is a “lynching” due to people’s hatred of his political, ethnic and religious views.

Judging by the comments above, it is obvious that his religion has been a lightning rod for criticism.

MANY OTHERS have commented on Yishai’s past political behavior. A blogger at Tikkun Olam asked: “Do you think the corrupt Interior Minister Eli Yishai – someone far more concerned with deporting children of foreign workers from Israel than fighting fires – will resign?” Monday’s Knesset session, which should have been a solemn moment to reflect on the tragic loss of life, included calls for Yishai to go. Nitzan Horowitz of Meretz declared: “The interior minister should resign, because he has direct ministerial responsibility for the fire-fighting services.”

To their shame Shlomo Molla (Kadima) and Eitan Cabel (Labor) joined in. Using their logic, maybe it is Molla’s friends in Kadima who should resign, as they did little to improve the fire-fighting services when they were in charge.

But Yishai must not leave. His resignation would add an injustice to the death and ruination the fire left behind.

Leaving means walking out on responsibility, not owning up to it.

Resignation would send the message that the blamers, the whiners, the shrill voices are winning. All too often in recent Israeli history, they have been the winning voices. Those who cast the most aspersions, those who hate the most and scream the most are the ones who get the most attention. All too often in recent times “finding the culprit” has carried the day, rather than reasoned progress toward a better future. More often than not, the long knives have come out rather than the notebooks.

The only action of Yishai that is suspect is based on a Jerusalem Post report that shows he severed relations with a major pro-Israel Christian charity that wanted to donate more fire trucks (it had donated eight in 2009). But the accusations are confusing.

The organization wanted a photoop with the haredi politician, and for him to attend an event, “but they said no, and we dropped it.”

This doesn’t hold water; if the organization cared so deeply, it could have donated the trucks to the Fire and Rescue Service and, to be sure, its officers would have been happy to be in the photos.

Why did they need Yishai to be there; it was obvious it would run against his feelings toward a Christian Evangelical group.

When the Orthodox have accepted pro- Israel Christian donations, they have been ridiculed for it.

Did Yishai err here? It’s not clear.

Not one solid fact shows Yishai to have been negligent. During the previous decade, he was one of the voices in the Knesset calling for increased funding for fire-fighting services. Ze’ev Segal writes in Haaretz that “it is no surprise that documents have already been produced that show that the minister responsible for the Fire and Rescue Service, Interior Minister Eli Yishai, had in the past demanded an increase in the fire service budget.”

Yishai must not resign. The bullying rhetoric must not be rewarded. Instead, Yishai must go back to work and make good on his desire to see more funding go to the firefighting services.

The writer is a PhD researcher at Hebrew University and a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies.

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