Several bereaved families who lost loved ones in the 2021 Mount Meron disaster tore into opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday, as did political rivals of the former premier, after he told a state commission of inquiry he wasn’t responsible for the deadly crush that happened under his leadership.
Yisrael Diskin, whose brother was one of the 45 people killed in the incident, said Netanyahu had adopted a policy regarding the Meron disaster that can be summed up as “I didn’t read, I didn’t see, I didn’t hear, I didn’t receive, I didn’t know.”
“During all of Netanyahu’s  years in office, all government ministries knew about the serious dangers [of crowding] at the mount, but chose to stick to a culture of ‘trust me, it’ll be fine,’ which led to this terrible disaster,” said Diskin. “Netanyahu’s answers were not satisfactory, and his claim that he was not aware that the site was a ticking time bomb is no less worrying.”
Netanyahu appeared before the state commission earlier Thursday, testifying that he was not aware of critical safety concerns at the annual event, which took place at the height of the coronavirus pandemic.
“I didn’t know that there was a critical safety problem,” Netanyahu testified. “I take responsibility for what was in front of me, and that was the epidemiological disaster, which I prevented. I can’t take responsibility for what I didn’t know.”
The April 2021 incident at the religious festival in northern Israel was the deadliest civilian disaster in the country’s history. Around 100,000 worshipers, mostly ultra-Orthodox Jews, attended the festivities despite longstanding warnings about the safety of the site.
Multiple media reports have said that Netanyahu, who was prime minister at the time, was under pressure from ultra-Orthodox political allies to approve the event without limits on attendance, despite long-standing police concerns over crowding safety. He met with ultra-Orthodox lawmakers ahead of the event and agreed to remove all restrictions at the site in exchange for the Haredi parties’ support for selected legislation.
At the time, COVID-19 pandemic rules limited outdoor gatherings to just 100 people, which meant the Lag B’Omer event at Mount Meron required special government-approved regulations to allow the larger attendance.
Netanyahu rejected the notion that his actions at the time were politically motivated. “I didn’t act due to pressure that the Haredim wanted it to be open,” he said. “It wasn’t on the basis of pressure, it was on the basis of instructions from the Health Ministry.”
Committee head former justice Dvora Berliner challenged Netanyahu to explain why, during his many years in office, the safety issues at the site were never dealt with despite the subject repeatedly being raised. “You were prime minister for 12 years. This issue [of safety at the packed annual event] kept coming up,” noted Berliner. “How, really, do you explain why the matter was not dealt with?”
Netanyahu rejected her suggestion and claimed his governments had done more than any others about the matter. “I’m sorry, your honor, I don’t accept your assertion. The issue was dealt with, in accordance with the recommendations of the state comptroller… I dealt with it, I took decisions that were supposed to deal with the various problems at the mount,” he said. “The only governments that did anything about the mount were the governments I led.”
Deputy Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana — who oversaw this year’s event and gave a subsequent speech at the Knesset plenum in which he took responsibility for faults that occurred — lashed out at the opposition leader.
“A person who will not take responsibility should not seek to steer the country,” Kahana tweeted, referencing Netanyahu’s desire to regain the premiership after the coming November 1 election.
Mocking Netanyahu for claiming not to know about the safety dangers at Meron ahead of time, Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman tweeted: “Just like you didn’t know about the hardships of IDF soldiers, the elderly, the Holocaust survivors, the disabled, the social workers and many others.” That was a reference to groups whose hardships have made headlines in recent years.
“You didn’t know, you didn’t care, and in one year we gave them significant salary increases and grants that improved their quality of life. Bibi, you continue not to know, and we will continue to take care of those in need,” he added.
Yesh Atid MK Vladimir Beliak called Netanyahu’s testimony “embarrassing.”
“There is no doubt that this man, with zero management skills, zero integrity and zero ability to accept responsibility for anything, is not worthy of holding the helm of the state,” he said.
“Netanyahu, you ‘don’t know’ what caused the disaster?” Deputy Economy Minister Yair Golan tweeted. “Let me tell you, it’s the unacceptable political intervention of you and your ministers in the previous government to allow [the event to take place without limits to crowding] even though you knew for sure that it would put lives at risk.”
“Forty-five people were killed, they throw blame at everyone and only Mr. Netanyahu is not responsible,” said a sarcastic Yesh Atid MK Ram Ben Barak.
In his testimony, the opposition chairman noted that many events entail mass gatherings and that the prime minister only becomes involved if there are special security or health considerations. In this case, Netanyahu said, he was not involved in the considerations of the dangers, but only in establishing the mechanism that would decide what should be done at the event.
Oversight of the event was the responsibility of the Religious Affairs Ministry, he argued, and not the Prime Minister’s Office. Netanyahu said his involvement last year only related to epidemiological considerations due to the COVID-19 pandemic, not the overall safety arrangements.
Netanyahu is the most senior official to testify before the committee, which has heard from over 100 others, including former ministers who were in office at the time.
On Wednesday, Ynet reported that Israel Police chief Kobi Shabtai and other senior officers are expected to be notified within weeks by the commission of inquiry that they are likely to be held responsible for the disaster. These include Northern District chief Shimon Lavi, who on Monday announced his resignation from the force, citing his responsibility in the deadly Mount Meron crush.
While the committee’s recommendations will not obligate a future government to adopt them, no Israeli government has ever completely ignored the recommendations of a state commission of inquiry.
This year’s Lag B’Omer event took place under strict limitations. Authorities instituted several safety measures meant to avoid a repeat of last year’s disaster, capping crowd sizes, requiring tickets, and changing the way the event was organized.
The government also fixed stairs and other infrastructure around the compound to boost safety.