Ministry in charge of earthquake preparedness said in ‘chaos,’ without leadership

Acting interior minister Malkieli has reportedly not visited offices since replacing disqualified Deri 2 weeks ago, as coalition standoff with top court hampers emergency readiness

Shas MK Michael Malkieli arrives for coalition talks at a hotel in Jerusalem on November 17, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Shas MK Michael Malkieli arrives for coalition talks at a hotel in Jerusalem on November 17, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In the midst of increased scrutiny of Israel’s earthquake readiness following the devastating tremors in Turkey and Syria, the government ministry in charge of preparations for such an emergency is effectively without a leadership and in “chaos,” a report said Wednesday.

The Interior Ministry is responsible for devising plans and emergency protocols to handle a scenario of a severe earthquake hitting Israel, as well as for government contact with local authorities in such a case. It also oversees the TAMA 38 project, aimed at strengthening the resistance to earthquakes of at-risk buildings — old ones built before 1980, when a mandatory engineering standard for earthquake resistance took effect.

However, the newly installed acting minister, Michael Malkieli of the Shas party, has not so much as visited the ministry offices since being appointed more than two weeks ago, according to Channel 12 news.

State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman warned this week that the TAMA 38 project, launched in 2005, has not been sufficiently implemented and that other action is required instead. Speaking Monday with high school students, he noted that according to previous estimations, a major earthquake could kill 7,000 people and leave 170,000 homeless.

Last year, a comptroller report found there were 600,000 buildings in the country that do not meet the standard for earthquake resistance. The Education Ministry told The Times of Israel on Monday that there are 1,600 such buildings used as schools or as other educational institutions, with upgrade processes being initiated in around 1,100 of them.

Despite the Interior Ministry’s key role in addressing these urgent issues, the TV report quoted unnamed officials in the ministry complaining that the minister’s office isn’t providing any responses besides exceptional cases.

The ministry is being managed by “remote control” and the result is “chaos,” the report said.

Malkieli, who is also the religious affairs minister, was tapped as acting interior minister for three months to replace his party leader, Aryeh Deri, who was disqualified last month from holding any minister posts by the High Court of Justice over his recent conviction for tax offenses — his third overall criminal conviction.

Justices near-unanimously voted that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointing Deri as interior and health minister was “unreasonable in the extreme,” also noting that Deri had last year given a lower court the false impression that he was permanently stepping down from public life to secure a lenient plea deal.

Then Health and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri a cabinet meeting in the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on January 15, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Netanyahu’s hardline government, which is planning to quickly legislate a sweeping plan to overhaul the justice system, has railed against the High Court decision and is working to find a legal solution to reinstate Deri as a minister as soon as possible, including by passing a law ending all judicial oversight over minister appointments.

While the government says its plans are aimed at reining in a powerful judiciary that has overstepped its authority over the years, the push has been roundly decried by many influential critics as going too far and threatening to undermine Israel’s democratic foundations by giving the government unbridled power.

Against this backdrop, Channel 12 suggested, Malkieli may not be wanting to step on Deri’s toes and show up at the Interior Ministry, which could be interpreted as an acceptance of the recent High Court ruling. Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara is reportedly probing whether Deri is defying the court decision by continuing to meet ministry officials and running it from afar.

Speaking with the Kan public broadcaster on Wednesday, Malkieli claimed Shas supporters “voted to see Deri as a minister” and expressed hope that “my role as acting interior minister ends quickly.”

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