Navigate to News section

What Israel Lost in the Fire

Prestige hurt, but Turkish diplomacy is back

Marc Tracy
December 06, 2010
The fire-scarred forest of northern Israel.(Anwar Amro/AFP/Getty Images)
The fire-scarred forest of northern Israel.(Anwar Amro/AFP/Getty Images)

The biggest and deadliest forest fire in Israel’s history has been brought under control after four days. The immediate toll: 42 deaths (including Israel’s highest-ranked policewoman), 10,000 acres of forest in the north, 4 million trees (though the Jewish National Fund guessed 5 million—so be extra-sure to plant one next time you’re over there). Presumably the financial cost was not insignificant—to take one example, renting the largest firefighting plane in the world, a retrofitted American-made 747 awesomely called the Evergreen Supertanker, can’t have been cheap.

The more lasting, geopolitical results of the fire are less knowable, although the time does feel pregnant. Israel’s prestige has been harmed, as it was clearly unequal to the task of stopping the fire on its own. (Interior Minister Eli Yishai, of the ultra-religious Shas Party, denied responsibility for the unpreparedness.) In another way, the fire provided an opportunity for a moment of good will in the international community for a nation not used to that, with 10 foreign countries (including the United States) sending aid. Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas held a rare phone conversation so that condolences could be offered for the deaths, most of which were of prison-guard trainees whose bus got caught in the inferno; this is likely the first time they have spoken since September. And then there is the Turkey situation.

Turkey sent firefighting planes to help, prompting a thank-you call from Netanyahu to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan—which is even more rare, and more unlikely, than Netanyahu and Abbas talking—in turn prompting a diplomatic meeting in Switzerland between Israeli and Turkish diplomats with the objective of restoring Turkey’s Israeli ambassador, who was withdrawn following the Memorial Day Weekend flotilla fiasco (in which nine Turkish nationals died). But a deal will require an apology from Israel, and it is not yet clear that Israel is ready to offer one. (Incidentally, if you didn’t catch them last month, our Turkey Week articles are worth consulting.)

Meanwhile, they think they know who caused the fire: Two Druze teenagers, who were arrested over the weekend, are suspected of negligence in setting the blaze. That is, unless you believe Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual guide to the interior minister’s Shas Party, who implied that the blaze occurred because of a lack of observance: “Fires only happen in a place where Shabbat is desecrated,” he declared. “Homes were ruined, entire neighborhoods wiped out, and it is not arbitrary. It is all divine providence.” Call Jerry Falwell—somebody stole his schtick.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.