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The State of the State

December 10, 2010

It took only a few minutes of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s nauseatingly self-congratulatory impromptu press conference on Saturday night to confirm what we all knew too well this country is in infinitely worse shape than we might wish to admit. The prime minister had every right to list the many countries he’d called upon for help, to exult in the number of planes that would soon be joining the battle to snuff out the Carmel Forest flames, and to assure Israelis that soon this country would soon have its very own airborne firefighting force, just as real countries do.

It would have been nice, however, to have heard some semblance of an admission that the government had failed its citizens yet again, some acknowledgement that it’s been almost a decade since the IAF said it could no longer fight fires with its helicopters. Everyone in power has known for at least that long that we were dangerously unprotected against the kind of inevitable catastrophe that finally struck last week.

But neither the fire nor our inadequate response is the real issue. The real issue is that just beneath the veneer of this startup nation with its hi-tech firms, its glistening Tel Aviv glass and chrome towers and its luxury hotels lining the beaches of the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, this is a country plagued by ailing and unsupervised infrastructure. We have a government that has long done nothing about this, a government in which the public has lost virtually all confidence.

The most honest moment of the entire Carmel Forest catastrophe came Thursday evening, when a fire service spokesperson virtually cried in an interview with Channel 2, saying that the country was completely out of fire-fighting materials, that equipment wasn’t working, and that somehow the fire had to be stopped, because the State of Israel is at stake.

Little did he know how true that was.

OF THE three main stories of the past week, two have already been forgotten. First, Cellcom’s entire network collapsed, leaving 3.3 million customers and many businesses completely incommunicado. Amos Shapira, Cellcom’s CEO, admirably took responsibility, but he also had to admit: We don’t know what happened and we don’t know when it will be fixed. Honest, but hardly comforting. Are our telecommunications really so fragile? Does anyone know? Does anyone care? And then there was the continuing saga of the appointment of the next police inspector-general a process sullied by the allegations of rape leveled at one of the (formerly) top contenders. Is it any wonder that most Israelis have but muted disdain for the police force, which they believe is wholly second rate? You could see the disdain for the police when many citizens refused officers orders to leave their homes due to the fire. Some, obviously, wanted to stay to protect their homes. But many others simply didn’t trust the police to make a responsible decision as to whether they could or could not stay, and still others were appalled by the force that police used to get them to move. In Ein Hod, residents actually boasted by showing television cameras about how easily they were able to sneak by police lines and return to neighborhoods that were supposedly off-limits.

So the cellphones are fragile, the police are dismissed as hacks, or worse, and the country that collected millions of quarters in blue JNF boxes over decades so that forests could be planted had taken no steps to make sure they were protected. Five million incinerated trees later, the familiar process has started finger-pointing and recrimination everywhere, investigative committees to be appointed and promises of six shiny new fire-fighting airplanes with a Star of David on the wings.

But the fundamental problem that governments of all parties simply fail to plan for the future remains utterly unacknowledged and unaddressed. For citizens to wish to remain in a country, to believe that it is worth spending their lives here and raising their children to be devoted to Israel, they cannot believe that the very government they elected considers their lives almost worthless.

ISRAELIS NOW know that the powers that be have known for many years that the county’s fire-fighting capacity was dangerously inadequate. They suspect that someone high up made a terrible decision to send a bus into a horrendously dangerous situation for which it was totally ill-suited. But do they really believe anything will change? If they don’t, why should they stay? Or if they have no choice but to stay, why should they be anything but cynical about the country that taxes them heavily and drafts their sons and daughters into dangerous military service? This country is eventually going to be hit by a massive earthquake scientists are virtually unanimous on that. Do we really believe we are prepared? And for years now, authorities both here and outside the country have been warning that Ben-Gurion Airport’s air traffic control system is woefully inadequate. TLV is a disaster just waiting to happen. And what’s been done? Virtually nothing.

But we’re about to have a spiffy new airborne firefighting force, aren’t we? So there is, after all, cause for comfort. Because we do learn from our mistakes.

One day, some months after a 747 crashes at TLV, killing hundreds of people, when tourists are afraid to fly here and numerous airlines have taken Israel off their destinations list, we’re going to go out and buy ourselves a shiny new air traffic control system. It’ll be the envy of airports across the globe, and the prime minister will inaugurate it, looking into the camera and saying, oh so sonorously: My friends, look at our cutting-edge technology. Israel, once again, is the envy of the world.

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