Lapid: If Netanyahu were an ordinary citizen, he'd go to prison

Likud derides inquiry on deadly Meron crush as ‘political weapon’ against Netanyahu

PM’s party rails at critics after they link 2021 disaster to Oct. 7, with Lapid slamming ‘pattern of neglect’; top cop and an ex-minister take responsibility; AG renews criminal probe

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits the scene of the disaster on Mount Meron, in northern Israel on April 30, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits the scene of the disaster on Mount Meron, in northern Israel on April 30, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party on Wednesday sought to delegitimize a state commission of inquiry after it named the premier among the officials personally responsible for the 2021 Meron disaster, in which 45 Israelis were trampled to death during a pilgrimage at the grave of a revered second-century rabbi.

The committee did not propose sanctions against Netanyahu but did offer a scathing assessment of the premier, saying it was reasonable to assume that he knew the Mount Meron site was dangerous after warnings by multiple official bodies over the years

In its statement responding to the findings of the panel, Likud rejected the commission of inquiry’s mandate, given that it was established by his political rivals, former prime ministers Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid, and was tasked with probing an event that didn’t take place during their tenure.

It also claimed that former IDF planning chief Maj. Gen. (res.) Shlomo Yanai, who was a member of the commission of inquiry, is a close associate of now-opposition leader Lapid and “received an offer from [Lapid] for a spot on the Yesh Atid Knesset slate.”

“Lapid’s cynical and deliberate attempt to turn the Meron disaster into a political weapon will not succeed,” Likud declared, all but dismissing the panel’s findings after first acknowledging that the 2021 incident was a “tragedy,” expressing its sympathy to the victims and arguing that the lessons from the crush had already been applied, given that last year’s pilgrimage took place without incident.

“The government will examine the need to draw additional operative lessons to prevent the recurrence of a disaster of this kind,” Likud clarified.

The Likud statement was in stark contrast with Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana, also a member of Likud, who served as public security minister at the time of the disaster and was also listed as one of those bearing personal responsibility by the commission.

“Since the Meron disaster, I carry with me the grief of the families,” Ohana said, admitting that while there was “a long-standing failure in organizing the event and the infrastructure of the place” it still “happened on my watch… and therefore I am responsible.”

Even before Netanyahu’s party issued its response, Lapid and other political rivals hit out at the premier, suggesting his conduct leading up to the Meron disaster foreshadowed his failure to avert Hamas’s brutal October 7 onslaught.

Shlomo Yanai arrives at a Jerusalem meeting of the State Commission of inquiry into the Meron Disaster on September 7, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

“What happened in Meron was not a coincidence or mishap. It is a pattern of neglect, negligence and dangerous irresponsibility. As the commission determined, ‘this disaster could and should have been averted,'” said Lapid during a Knesset press conference after the commission of inquiry presented its findings.

“The Meron disaster was the worst civilian disaster in the country’s history. The October 7 disaster was the worst disaster to befall the Jewish people since the Holocaust,” the opposition leader continued, adding, “It, too, should have been prevented by Netanyahu.”

“If Netanyahu were an ordinary citizen, he would stand trial today for causing death by negligence and go to prison,” said Lapid.

The Yesh Atid leader issued a follow-up statement after the Likud published its response, saying the latter’s reaction was a “shameful disgrace and an insult to the memory of the Meron victims.”

“The attempt to discredit General Yanai, a recipient of the IDF’s Medal of Distinguished Service, and Rabbi Mordechai Karlitz, the former mayor of Bnei Brak, as if their considerations were political, only proves the low level to which Netanyahu has reached,” Lapid said. “All this in an attempt to absolve him of responsibility for a disaster for which the state commission of inquiry emphatically determined that he was guilty.”

In another statement, Lapid added that he had not spoken to Yanai in ten years and while the government he helped lead indeed voted to establish the commission, it was not responsible for choosing its members, which also included Karlitz, a member of a United Torah Judaism faction that has been part of the current and previous Netanyahu governments.

Labor leader Merav Michaeli struck a similar tone to that of the opposition leader. “The lies and evasions don’t hide reality: Netanyahu is personally responsible for the disaster. It was true of Meron, and is a million times more so of October 7,” Michaeli wrote on X.

Yesh Atid party head Yair Lapid gives a statement to the media on the Meron disaster report at the Knesset on March 6, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Labor later submitted a no-confidence motion against Netanyahu

“The State Commission of Inquiry regarding the disaster at Mount Meron placed personal, direct and clear responsibility on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, stating that he knew about the danger, ignored the many warnings that were sent to him and did not oversee the implementation of the government’s decisions on the matter,” the party said in a statement asserting that the government “must be replaced now.”

“This is a government that is dangerous to the State of Israel, that does not know how to take responsibility, neither for the Mount Meron disaster nor for the October 7 disaster,” the statement added.

Yair Golan, a former Israeli Defense Forces deputy chief of staff who is running to replace Michaeli atop Labor, also made the connection, writing on X that “45 men and boys paid with their lives at the Meron event, an entire country is paying the price for the October 7 negligence, and many more might continue paying a heavy toll if we don’t replace the disaster government immediately.”

War cabinet member Benny Gantz, who as defense minister in 2022 supported the establishment of the commission of inquiry, responded to the panel’s findings in a more sanguine manner, saying on X that its findings were “first and foremost a lifesaving report, which must be studied by all governmental bodies and emergency services.”

“We cannot bring the 45 victims from the Meron pilgrimage back to their families, but we can prevent such devastating disasters in the future,” added Gantz, who polls show to be Netanyahu’s most serious rival for the premiership.

The office of senior United Torah Judaism lawmaker Meir Porush, who as Jerusalem Affairs Minister is tasked with ensuring the safety of the next Meron pilgrimage in May, said that it will implement the inquiry commission’s findings.

Police chief Kobi Shabtai accepted the report’s findings, which named him among those personally responsible for the deadly 2021 crush, saying that he is ready to step down when the government decides he should.

Israelis light candles for the 45 victims who were killed in a crush at Mount Meron during the Lag B’Omer celebrations, at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv. May 2, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

“Commissioner Shabtai, as he has always done in all his roles, accepts full responsibility,” a police statement said.

The commission’s findings prompted Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara on Wednesday to relaunch a criminal investigation into the Meron disaster, after her predecessor, Avichai Mandelblit, had frozen criminal inquiries in July 2021 in order to give the state commission precedence to look into the tragedy.

The commission’s report specifically called for the probes to be reopened, noting that its inquest “is no substitute for the work of criminal investigatory bodies.”

Forty-five men and boys were killed on April 30, 2021, in a crush at the hilltop gravesite of second-century sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai on Mount Meron in northern Israel during the annual Lag B’Omer celebrations, after 100,000 worshipers, mostly members of the ultra-Orthodox community, crowded into the holy site despite longstanding warnings about the safety of the complex.

Sam Sokol contributed to this report.

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