The ‘mehdal’ we need to fix

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Originally published in The Jerusalem Post


12/12/2010 21:41 


A key decision for the government, as underlined by Carmel fire, is to unify all emergency and rescue authorities under one ministerial office.  

The Yom Kippur War left a scar on the state of Israel that has yet to fully heal. Thousands of dead and wounded paid the price for the intelligence failure at the time, the false “conception” that there was little chance of an Egyptian attack upon us. That war gave birth to a concept that has accompanied us as an eternal shadow ever since – the mehdal, the enormous blunder. This one word encapsulated the public’s anger and disappointment over the unforgivable blindness that overtook the political and military leadership in October 1973. 

Almost four decades have passed and mehdal has become a common term used to describe any and every error, grave or not, major or slight. It is no longer uniquely reserved for only the most traumatic event or national calamity. Our national soccer team fails yet again to qualify for the World Cup – a mehdal! A Tel Aviv rapist escapes from under the noses of two police officers – an irreparable mehdal! A political party’s computers crash on the morning of the primaries and the lines to the voting booths become longer than expected – an unforgivable mehdal! Since the huge fire in the Carmel resulted in the deaths of 43 people and destroyed millions of trees, the term mehdal is once again on everyone’s lips. The familiar battle has begun. The opposition calls for the resignation of the prime minister and interior minister. The media demands a state commission of inquiry to examine the reasons behind the disaster. 

The bereaved families demand that those responsible be brought to justice. 

On the other side, government supporters emphasize the dynamic performance of the prime minister during the crisis. The interior minister calls a press conference to detail the efforts he had made to obtain the necessary funding for the fire services. 

Everyone entrenches and fortifies himself, taking cover behind lawyers and public relations experts, gearing up to fend off every possible attack. 

I AM not, heaven forbid, belittling the relevance of the questions over whether some kind of investigative committee should be established, whether this or that minister should stay or go, or whether or not funds should be allocated to establish a fleet of blue-and-white fire-fighting planes. In the coming days these questions and others will certainly be addressed. But the preoccupation with them overshadows the most important and urgent decision that the government must take: the unification of all emergency and rescue authorities under one ministerial office. 

The minister appointed for such a task would have the sole authority to deploy the national unified forces in an emergency. In quieter times the minister would be responsible for building and preparing these forces for their work, budgeting, determining the priorities of the unified network and ensuring that the ministry’s goals are met. 

That is exactly how the US operated after 9/11. The government understood that the law enforcement authorities needed to be integrated with the rescue authorities. As a result, the Department of Homeland Security was established. Under the broad wings of this new department, many authorities – that previously operated under an array of government departments without coordination, and with all kinds of inefficiencies and conflicts – became unified.  

Today, the Department of Homeland Security is responsible for all the units whose integrative operation enables them to cope effectively with strategic and tactical threats. Important issues that until 2001 were handled separately, by departments remote from one another, are now overseen by Homeland Security with the broadest vision. These issues include: domestic nuclear detection, transportation security, customs and border protection, citizenship and immigration, Coast Guard, Secret Service, emergency management, narcotics enforcement and critical infrastructure protection. 

IN 2003, prime minister Ariel Sharon appointed me to head the Ministry of Public Security. I studied the conditions under which the Department of Homeland Security was established and met with its founder, secretary Tom Ridge. It became clear to me that the idea was not a new one. Since 1991, respected committees had been recommending time after time to all Israeli prime ministers that a unified body of emergency and rescue authorities be established. People with vast experience in the public sphere headed those committees, including former IDF chief of General Staff Moshe Levi, police inspector general Herzl Shapir and Maj.-Gen. Ron Goren. 

In 2004, I presented a detailed and well-reasoned proposal to Sharon for the establishment of an all-encompassing authority for emergency and rescue forces in the Ministry of Public Security that would include: • From the Interior Ministry – the fire and rescue services (which would become national services). 

• From the Health Ministry – Magen David Adom. 

• From the IDF – the Home Front Command. 

• From the Prime Minister’s Office – the Anti-Drug Authority. 

• From the Defense Ministry – the National Emergency Management Authority. 

Sharon was convinced of the need for this course of action, and expressed his complete support. To my sorrow, I left the Ministry of Public Security a few months later and Sharon became totally immersed in a much more demanding process – the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. 

Over the past few years, the need to unify the emergency and rescue authorities has only become greater. 

The Second Lebanon War, Operation Cast Lead, the massive arming of Hizbullah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Syria, the Iranian threat that becomes more concrete by the day – all these intensify the need to prepare for confrontation that may prove graver than ever before. 

The fire on the Carmel was just a chilling reminder that the price of administrative delays and procrastination is paid with people’s lives.