Inertia is a force in government as well as physics.
It took World War II to create more than 100 new countries and rearrange the forces most important. Germany and Japan were the big losers. Britain, France, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Portugal were not far behind. The next big bang came with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. East Germany, Hungary, Poland, and parts of what had been Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia were prominent winners.
The force of Barack Obama was enough to enact a measure that he claimed would transform health care in the United States. So far we are seeing the inertial power of insurance companies and the efforts of opponents to derail change in the courts. Skeptics are wondering about the capacity of medical services to accommodate an additional 40 million people with some kind of insurance.
Compared to great events of the past, the fire that swept through the Carmel was a small pop on the world scene. It was a bigger event in Israel, but early signs of political panic, blame, and insistent demands do not portend a quick fix of what may have been wrong.
A look at the world in the late 1940s and much of the 1950s, or the remains of the Soviet empire in the 1990s reminds us that crises do not produce reforms that are quick or orderly. Inertia does its work via interests that resist new arrangements, as well as the appropriateness of looking closely at proposals for major change.
There is a substantial collection of reports and recommendations, going back several years, about the need to upgrade the equipment of Israel's fire brigades, adding to their personnel, and integrating local units into a national organization. Members of Knesset and others are urging action. The SHAS Interior Minister with formal responsibility is noting all the times he supported the fire service, and blaming the stinginess of the Finance Ministry. Opponents are emphasizing his greater concern for his religious constituency, and the proclamation of the rabbi who is the titular leader of SHAS that the fire resulted from the nation's lack of proper Sabbath observance.
The Prime Minister is claiming the mantle of Messiah in chief. His assertion of being on the right side of earlier efforts to improve the fire service has invited caustic comments from close observers. His boast about the 747 he hired to fly from the United States, and his concern to be filmed inside the plane stroking its equipment have invited ridicule that the long trip, and the time required to replenish the liquid that the monster could splash on the flames limited its utility. With the fire all but out, the Prime Minister has appointed a political ally to be in charge of providing aid and compensation to the victims. He and his appointee promise to "cut through the bureaucracy" in order to speed payments, with an initial grant of 2,500 shekels (about $675) per person to families whose homes were completely destroyed. The "completely destroyed" will complicate issues enough to assure a role for bureaucrats, but the speeches of the Prime Minister and his special assistant may have sounded good to those who did not listen too closely.
Among what may be the knottiest of problems: figuring out the compensation, if any, due to residents of the artists' village of Ein Hod for claims of artwork destroyed or damaged.
Going far beyond the focus on fire were a series of articles in the first edition of Ha'aretz to appear after the weekend. They pointed to other possible disasters that the country was not prepared to meet: earthquakes, disease, and air traffic control at the international airport.
Clarity is the thing least available at this point, but it seems safe to bet that not all of the interests are going to get what they want by using the fire to promote their projects.
A prominent economic columnist asserts there was no grand failure of emergency services. He compared the fire to what is seasonal in the western United States and other forest areas. There is often a need to bring resources from outside the immediate area. In the case of countries smaller or poorer than the United States, there are international arrangements for sharing equipment. The death of 42 individuals associated with a prison evacuation lifted this fire above others in Israel's history, but it is a stretch to claim that the tragedy was associated with any shortages or faults of the fire brigades.
Psychologists say that a personal tragedy produces a sequence of denial and anger before mourning and coping allows adjustment. Politics has its equivalent sequence. Confusion, accusation, and multiple proposals appear to precede any acceptance of a strategy for moving forward. Israel's fire has produced great emotion, but no clear indication of what will come next. It may be nothing of significance. Perhaps there will be some fire fighting planes more modest and maneuverable than the American 747 or the Russian Ilyusian, and a reorganization of the fire service beyond the realm of SHAS into the Ministry of Internal Security. We do not know how much of a crisis is enough to break the power of inertia.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem