'I didn't know there was a critical safety problem'

Testifying at Meron probe, Netanyahu denies responsibility for deadly disaster

Opposition leader, who was PM during 2021 catastrophe that killed 45, tells commision of inquiry he was not involved in planning event beyond concerns due to COVID-19 pandemic

Opposition leader former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives to testify before the Meron Disaster Inquiry Committee, in Jerusalem, on July 21, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Opposition leader former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives to testify before the Meron Disaster Inquiry Committee, in Jerusalem, on July 21, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday testified before the state commission of inquiry probing last year’s Mount Meron disaster that saw 45 people killed in a deadly crush at a religious pilgrimage, telling the panel that he was not aware of critical safety concerns at the annual event.

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.

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.

Asked directly by the commission’s Shlomo Yanai whether, as prime minister at the time and for years before, he took “public or moral responsibility for this disaster,” Netanyahu replied: “First of all, I take responsibility for what was in front of me, and that was the epidemiological disaster, and that I prevented… In hindsight, there was a catastrophe… I can’t take responsibility for what I didn’t know.”

“I didn’t know that there was a critical safety problem,” Netanyahu testified.

He told the panel that each year for a decade while he was in office, hundreds of thousands had gathered at Meron to celebrate the Lag B’Omer pilgrimage event.

“There is a question here. What happened this year [of the disaster] that didn’t happen in previous years? That is the question,” he said.

Related: A steep, slippery ramp, uneven stairs: Walking the route of the Meron disaster

Related: After Meron calamity, Haredim question the price of their own autonomy

Netanyahu noted that many events entail mass gatherings and that the prime minister only becomes involved if there are special security or health considerations.

Israeli rescue forces and police stand on the stairs where a mass of people were crushed to death and injured during the celebrations of the Lag B’Omer holiday on Mount Meron, in northern Israel on April 30, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

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.

“We are all experts in hindsight. If I could go back today, I would act differently,” Netanyahu said.

Committee head former justice Dvora Berliner, who fired a succession of searching questions at the former prime minister, challenged Netanyahu to explain why, during his 12 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.”

“In practice, one has to determine the professional authority and give it the tools so that it can solve the problems. The prime minister cannot handle countless safety issues,” he said.

“Time after time, the same issue is raised,” insisted a clearly troubled Berliner, citing an array of documented concerns year after year, “and it [apparently] doesn’t set off a red light. That’s all.”

Netanyahu countered that there wasn’t the deluge of concerns that she had suggested, “but maybe a drop here and a drop there.”

Former Justice Dvora Berliner, head of the state commission of inquiry into the Meron disaster, at a hearing in Jerusalem on July 21, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Berliner persisted that there were repeated warnings that inadequate safety arrangements meant a disaster was looming. “The fact that no single minister has overall responsibility for the event… quite apart from logistical difficulties and discomfort for participants, is likely to cause a grave disaster, including multiple deaths and injuries,” she said, quoting from one written warning. “That’s a terrible sentence, in my opinion.”

“Indeed,” said Netanyahu. “That’s an important sentence. I don’t want to minimize it. I just want to clarify how government works,” he said, noting that “most things don’t get as far as the prime minister… People don’t come to the prime minister and say, ‘Take note. Another red light is flashing.'” If he had been appraised of the dangers, he said, “if they’d said, look, there’s going to be a terrible disaster here, do something, I promise you, I would have dealt with it.”

Oversight of the event was the responsibility of the Religious Affairs Ministry, he testified, 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.

Although a framework, backed by Netanyahu, for allowing several thousand people to attend under special regulations was considered by various authorities, it was never given final approval. Thus, ultimately the event drew 100,000 — fewer people than the pre-COVID norm of several hundred thousand, but far more than the special regulation framework would have mandated.

Opposition leader former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives to testify before the Meron Disaster Inquiry Committee, in Jerusalem, on July 21, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Netanyahu denied that he was persuaded by pressure from the ultra-Orthodox community to allow attendance beyond COVID limits. Asked if there was any connection between the proposed framework and demands from allied political parties, Netanyahu responded that there was not, insisting it was based entirely on professional opinions.

“I didn’t act due to pressure that the Haredim wanted it to be open,” he said using another term for the ultra-Orthodox. “It wasn’t on the basis of pressure, it was on the basis of instructions from the Health Ministry.”

Bodybags at the scene of the Mount Meron disaster, April 30, 2021 (Screenshot)

Netanyahu also said it was not up to him to organize a cabinet meeting to review the proposed framework and that no request to do so had come from any ministries.

The Kan public broadcaster reported on Wednesday that in order for the event to go ahead as planned with its usual massive attendance, Netanyahu was required to sign off on regulations allowing the celebration to be exempted from the COVID rules. Regulations were drawn up by relevant ministries which, according to previous reports, would have capped attendance at 10,000, far below usual. But these were not implemented.

Netanyahu did not become involved in deliberations between the ministries about the matter, did not convene the cabinet to approve the regulations, and ultimately did not sign them, according to the Kan report.

As a result, the pilgrimage went ahead without the regulations being approved or a formal government decision to allow an exemption from COVID rules.

At the time, legal advisers in the ministries warned that the event contravened the rules, Kan reported, and the investigative committee has said it takes the same view.

Unnamed legal sources told the station that the circumstantial aspects tying Netanyahu to the disaster could lead to him being held responsible, though criminal charges were unlikely. Instead, the committee was more likely to issue personal recommendations about Netanyahu.

Netanyahu’s Likud party responded in a statement that the Kan report was “fake news, deliberate deception.”

The party said that the regulations presented in the report were never approved by the so-called coronavirus cabinet of ministers dealing with the pandemic, nor by the attorney general, and were therefore never brought for approval to Netanyahu.

Victims of the April 30, 2021, Mount Meron disaster: Top row (L-R): Chen Doron, Haim Rock, Ariel Tzadik, Yossi Kohn, Yisrael Anakvah, Yishai Mualem, Yosef Mastorov, Elkana Shiloh and Moshe Levy; 2nd row (L-R): Shlomo Zalman Leibowitz, Shmuel Zvi Klagsbald, Mordechai Fakata, Dubi Steinmetz, Abraham Daniel Ambon, Eliezer Gafner, Yosef Greenbaum, Yehuda Leib Rubin and Yaakov Elchanan Starkovsky; 3rd row (L-R): Haim Seler, Yehoshua Englard, Moshe Natan Neta Englard, Yedidia Hayut, Moshe Ben Shalom, David Krauss, Eliezer Tzvi Joseph, Yosef Yehuda Levy and Yosef Amram Tauber; 4th row (L-R): Menachem Knoblowitz, Elazar Yitzchok Koltai, Yosef David Elhadad, Shraga Gestetner, Yonatan Hebroni, Shimon Matalon, Elazar Mordechai Goldberg, Moshe Bergman and Daniel Morris; 5th row (L-R): Ariel Achdut, Moshe Mordechai Elhadad, Hanoch Slod, Yedidya Fogel, Menahem Zakbah, Simcha Diskind, Moshe Tzarfati, Nahman Kirshbaum and Eliyahu Cohen.

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.

Northern District police chief Shimon Lavi seen at the Lag Baomer celebrations, at Mount Meron, May 19, 2022. (David Cohen/Flash90)

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.

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