Israel marked the first anniversary of a tragedy in which 44 firefighters were killed in a forest fire on the Carmel Mountain outside Haifa, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu once again stumbled into the prickly bramble of a public relations misadventure.
Neither Interior Minister Eli Yishai nor Netanyahu were expected at the event, which was attended by numerous family members of the dead firefighters. Over the past year both leaders have been roundly criticized for mishandling the inferno, which eventually required help from foreign countries before being vanquished.
Israeli media report that Netanyahu and Yishai decided to attend the event at the last minute, after learning that opposition leader Tsippi Livni was planning on participating.
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Reading from a text prepared by the Office of the Prime Minister, Dan Kaner, a well-known radio announcer who was serving as the event’s host, praised the prime minister for “being the first to realize the seriousness of the event, and the first to respond and care for the families.” Further laudatory encomiums — and awkwardness — ensued.
Netanyahu was immediately slammed for self-promotion. Permitting himself rarely heard caustic license, opposition lawmaker Meir Shitreet mocked Netanyahu, “We get it, Mr. Prime Minister! You are the greatest! You are the biggest! You are the best and most muscled! The sun emanates from you!”
“What is this? North Korea?” asked Israel Army radio host Razi Barka’i. “A national ceremony of mourning is used for disgusting, dripping self-promotion? Has he lost his mind?”
“It was clearly a huge mistake. Someone should have to pay for this. It is embarrassing,” said Nir Chafetz, who served as Netanyahu’s spokesman until earlier this year, and is now editor of the daily newspaper Ma’ariv.
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Labor Party leader Shelly Yachimovitch called the lines of self-praise “cynical and utterly insensitive.”
The national ombudsman is expected to issue a report on the response to the Carmel fire next month, and it is widely anticipated that both Yishai and Netanyahu will be criticized for budgetary measures that enriched partisan causes at the expense of equipment for firefighters, who found themselves quickly overwhelmed by a vicious blaze no one in the government had anticipated.
Even Turkey, despite deteriorated relations with Israel, sent firefighting planes as the extent of the damage and ongoing danger became clear. It took close to four days to defeat the flames.