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Politicizing a Snowstorm

by Shmuel Rosner

December 16, 2013 | 8:07 am

Western Wall worshipers in the snow (Photo: Reuters)

A snow storm is a joy and a nuisance. In Israel, it is usually mostly a joy, as it is usually rare, short and painless. But this year is different. This year – in the last couple of days – many Israelis got a taste, for the first time in their lives, of a real storm, one that cuts power and kills trees, one that leaves icy roads for many days and the children at home without schools to go to. It is a storm to remember, luckily one with relatively few casualties. But many people suffered, and still suffer, from the cold, the blocked roads, and other obvious disruptions.

The storm is nobody's fault – and that's a problem. In a culture used to blame games, it leaves a citizen with two options: skipping the habit of complaining and waiting for the storm and its damages to pass, or blaming the government for "lack of preparedness", a term so vague and devoid of specific meaning that it can always be used.

How "prepared" should a government be for a once in a hundred years snow storm? Would it be enough if the roads were only closed for two days instead of four? Should they be closed for only one day? Half a day? Not closed at all?

"Preparedness" is not really about Preparedness, it is about expectations. If citizens want their government to be prepared for such a storm with the means that make it unfelt – then the citizens have a skewed understanding of government priorities and of the way government means should be utilized. If citizens want their government to build infrastructure that can withstand all storms, a power system that never glitches, roads that are never blocked – then the citizens have expectations that are unrealistic, if not delusional.

I don't think many Israelis have such expectations. I think most of them realize that some measure of pain is to be expected when the storm of a century hits the country. I believe that what they really want is not a change in priorities but a license to complain, even when they realize that most complaints, in this case, are futile. And of course, some of them just see an opportunity to point a finger at a favorite target of criticism, be it the police, the municipality or the Prime Minister. New opposition leader Isaac Herzog (Labor) tried to affirm his position as critic-in-chief of all governmental misbehavior by stating that it was "unfortunate that while thousands of people still don't have electricity, the prime minister is focused on public relations and making jokes in front of the cameras". I'm not sure why: had the PM not made a joke would it have made anyone's situation better?

State Comptroller Yosef Shapira has already said that his office would "scrutinize the measures taken by the authorities in anticipation of the storm and review the degree to which they were coordinated in their response". A storm can be treated as a grand rehearsal for all emergency forces – and such a rehearsal is worth examining if the purpose is making them all better prepared for the next great event in which they are needed. But this can only happen in an atmosphere of serious deliberation and not when the public expects political and\or bureaucratic executions following a comptroller investigation.

And – again – the usefulness of any examination depends a lot on the expectations of the comptroller (or anyone else in charge of investigating the events): if there is a problem of lack of communication between agencies, or turf wars over areas of responsibility or misguided use of resources that are already available, the comptroller can be useful in highlighting it and making the government act on it. But when it comes to the question of means – should Israel have more vehicles for clearing snow from the roads, should more resources be invested in making power lines more snow resistant, should more trees be cut to prevent them from falling - saying that preparedness was insufficient means nothing, unless one is ready to also say which other priorities should have been pushed aside to make room for better preparation.

So, was Israel sufficiently prepared? Amusingly, one of the most vocal camps of Israeli defenders of government actions in recent days was the group of Israelis that has had the opportunity to live abroad – mostly Israelis who lived in the US. Being one of them, I remember too many days without electricity in Maryland to be impressed by a couple of days without electricity in Jerusalem. Being one of them, political blogger Tal Schneider posted a status on Facebook in which she told the story of a two-week siege at her house in the Washington area. She then went on the airwaves to share the news with other Israelis: governments – not just the Israeli government – can't prevent all damage when storms hit.

America intriguingly plays a very different role here from the one Israelis are used to. If the US standard is usually presented to Israelis as the golden standard which Israel should aspire to, in this case the US plays the opposite role: if not even the US, with all its resources and vast experience with snow storms, can be better prepared for such an event – don't expect too much from your own government.

Yet – interestingly and enchantingly – Israelis do expect more. That is actually a good thing, as long as they don't overreact. 

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