Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was “hysterical” prior to a key meeting with police over plans for last year’s celebrations at Mount Meron, according to a testimony heard Tuesday at the state commission of inquiry into the stampede that took the lives of 45 people.
Testifying on Tuesday, Yisrael Ozen, the head of former Interior Minister Arye Dery’s bureau, ascribed the former prime minister’s behavior to pressure exerted on him by ultra-Orthodox political leaders to open the site to all celebrants, despite coronavirus restrictions then in force.
He said the Interior Ministry itself “had never been presented” with any “concrete problems involving safety or enforcement” at Mount Meron.
Ozen described Dery’s involvement in the issue as part of his broader policy of engaging in matters involving the Haredi community even when they were outside his ministry’s purview.
“The Meron issue was a coronavirus issue,” he said, so that the main challenge was finding a way to ensure all the celebrants who wanted to could reach the site, which is home to the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.
“I gathered the demands of the public and the Health Ministry and from that we devised a framework,” Ozen said, adding that "it was understood that there will be a limit on the number of people allowed at the site," and that as far as he was concerned, it was the Health Ministry's authority to draw the limit.
When asked to respond to Police Superintendent Liraz Amano's assertions that Dery's bureau had demanded an urgent meeting to approve a framework without crowd restrictions, Ozen replied that he pressured Amano because he "needed to understand the police's position" ahead of a meeting with Netanyahu on the subject.
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Immediately after the meeting ended, the government issued a statement saying that “due to low contagion numbers, the public will be allowed to come to the Rashbi festivities,” referring to the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yachai by his acronym. Despite the absence of a specific framework for gathering in enclosed areas at the site, Ozen said that “the decision in principle was that the mountain would be open.”
Ozen also testified that it was Dery who proposed the framework that was finally approved.
Before the meeting to discuss the framework, Dery had met with then-Public Security Minister Amir Ohana. While Ozen said that Ohana had no authority to approve the framework, he did confirm Amano's claim that he had told her that "Ohana will speak with the police," to facilitate the open regulations.
Ozen also confirmed Amano's assertion that he had told her that the "prime minister is hysterical." When asked how he knew that Netanyahu was in that state, Ozen responded that “he was under pressure from political leaders in the Haredi community to move forward with the Meron framework.” He said he learned of the pressure from the Haredi media.
During questioning, panel member Dvora Berliner suggested that Ozen’s role in the meeting and shaping its outcome were greater than what he led on. Yanai, another panel member, added: “You didn’t come to the meeting as an innocent bystander. You were involved in deciding who would attend – it was you, in fact, who called the meeting. What did you want to emerge from the discussion?” asked Yanai.
“We had a very clear framework in advance and we ‘lobbied’ to promote it,” replied Ozen.
When asked about the extent of the Interior Ministry’s responsibility for the physical facilities at Meron, Ozen said that “in the end, I believe, it was in the purview of the local authority.” He added that the interior minister had undertaken to upgrade access roads up the mountain, and got significant funding from the treasury for this.
Knesset member Miri Regev, who was transportation minister when the disaster occurred, said in testimony on Tuesday that her ministry was involved in regulating traffic coming to Meron but that “who arrived – how many people there were on the mountain – wasn’t my responsibility. At no stage did anyone say to me there were any restrictions on the number of people.”
When asked why no one was made fully responsible for the celebrations, Regev said she “had no knowledge or involvement” in the matter. She said the January 2016 cabinet decision assigning responsibility for managing the celebrations to the Religious Services Ministry gave her the impression that “there was someone in charge.”
Regev said she hadn’t “monitored” the coronavirus rules that were approved for the celebration. “I think they wouldn’t have approved this matter if it had not been for the attorney general’s approval – an oral approval, because I understand that there was no formal directive,” she said.