Meron Panel May Nail Police Chief, but Not Before the End of His Term

A final report on the 2021 Meron disaster that saw 45 dead is not expected before late 2023, at which point Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai will end his term in office

Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner
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Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai.
Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai.Credit: Moti Milrod
Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner

The Israel Police brass is concerned these days with the timing of the publication of the Mount Meron disaster inquiry commission’s final report. Last week saw the testimony of the 141st witness, former Interior Minister Arye Dery, whose testimony apparently marks the end of the evidentiary phase.

But a year after the disaster that cost the lives of 45 people, a final report, including recommendations for punishing those deemed responsible, still seems far from being published. The main question is whether the commission’s conclusions will be released before Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai ends his term in office.

According to several sources, the commissioner and his confidants fear that the final report will include recommendations that could lead to his termination.

At the same time, the same sources say the police believe the report will only be produced after or near the end of Shabtai’s term, scheduled to wrap up in January 2024, with the identity of his successor already known. Shabtai himself has made similar assessments, according to these same sources.

The commission heard witnesses from three main bodies: police – from the senior brass, including Shabtai and Northern District Commander Shimon Lavi, to rank-and-file officers; the professional echelon, including safety engineers and senior officials of the Interior Ministry and Religious Affairs Ministry; and the political echelon, headed by Dery, former Religious Affairs Minister Yaakov Avitan, and former Public Security Minister Amir Ohana.

Emergency personnel assisting after dozens were killed and others injured after a grandstand collapsed in Mount Meron, 2021.Credit: United Hatzalah / AFP

The commission has yet to announce that it is done summoning witnesses, and it may seek to summon some of them again. Thus, for example, it is possible that Lavi, who was the first witness, will be summoned to testify again, at which point commission members will be able to confront him with subsequent testimonies that contradict his.

A senior politician who hasn't been summoned is former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. According to testimonies, Netanyahu was party to the decision to hold the festival in an “open mountain” format, meaning with no restrictions.

In the phase following the testimonies, warning letters are sent to those the commission believes may be harmed by its conclusions. Such letters should be issued within two months at the earliest.

From interim statements of the three commission members, it can be deduced that senior figures in all three bodies are expected to receive such warnings. Among police brass, these are expected to be District Commander Lavi and Commissioner Shabtai, who approved the festival’s plans and were party to the agreement with the ministers.

At the professional level, warning letters are likely to be sent to the senior figures of the Religious Affairs Ministry and the heads of the Center for Development of Shrines, who were responsible for the tomb compound.

Among the political echelon, former ministers Avitan and Ohana are expected to receive warnings. The latter two were fiercely criticized by commission member Maj. Gen. (ret.) Shlomo Yanai, who focused on their ministries’ level of oversight.

Warning letters often serve as a prelude to indictment, followed by a legal proceeding that can last up to a year. The law allows those warned to receive all the inquiry materials laid before the commission, to study them, to testify again before the commission, and also to cross-examine any witness who has already appeared before the panel or to summon additional witnesses on their own behalf.

The scope of material before the commission is immense: The documentation includes tens of thousands of pages, in addition to the testimonies of 141 witnesses. Those officials receiving warnings also may contest the decisions of the inquiry commission, for example if they feel they are not given enough time to prepare, by petitioning the High Court of Justice.

The police are constantly monitoring the Meron commission’s “little sister” – the governmental committee examining the fiasco of the September 2021 escape from Gilboa Prison – which took five months from the sending of warning letters to the start of the second phase of witness questioning.

The Meron commission’s timetable is expected to be even longer than that, as it involves more agencies and more witnesses (almost three times as many), as well as reports by the former state comptroller on the matter. At the earliest, it will only begin in early 2023, and is likely to end in the second half of that year.

The police commissioner and other potential recipients of warning letters can also look with satisfaction at the Or Commission, which investigated the deaths of 13 Arab citizens in the October 2000 riots. That commission took three years to formulate a final report. By then, the police commissioner during the riots, Yehuda Wilk, was already out of office, and the recommendations against him were moot.

Other than Shabtai, police officials awaiting the panel’s conclusions are Maj. Gen. Lavi. He has headed the Northern District since June 2019, and he began overseeing the festival this year, after the 2021 catastrophe. There were no casualties at this year's festival, which is to his benefit.

Normally, Lavi would have likely moved on to another top position or left the police, but Lavi is in a quandary: Retirement may position him as someone who left due to the inquiry commission’s expected conclusions. Beyond that, it is easier for an officer to fight charges and conclusions while still within the system.

On the other hand, Shabtai cannot remove him from the force, as that would be interpreted as a firing and as blaming him for the disaster, while Shabtai himself is under threat of such a recommendation from the inquiry commission.

Another possibility is transfering Lavi to another major general’s post, which he is unlikely to agree to. Police and former senior officials assess that Lavi, a highly regarded officer who has successfully combated crime in the Arab community, will soon announce his departure.

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