Dozens Have Testified in Meron Stampede Probe. Why Hasn't Netanyahu?

Benjamin Netanyahu was prime minister at the time of the disaster, and witnesses told inquiry panel he was involved in the decision to allow unfettered access to the holy site where 45 Jewish pilgrims were trampled to death

Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner
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Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits Mount Meron, northern Israel, after 45 people were crushed to death during the yearly Lag Ba'Omer festival, last April.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits Mount Meron, northern Israel, after 45 people were crushed to death during the yearly Lag Ba'Omer festival, last April.Credit: Ronen Zvulun/Pool Photo via AP
Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner

The government committee investigating the events leading up to the 2021 Mount Meron disaster has not called on former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to testify, even though witnesses have told the panel that he was involved in the decision not to restrict access to the site ahead of Lag Ba’omer.

The Mount Meron disaster saw 45 people trampled to death due to lack of proper arrangements.

The committee has heard testimony from 141 witnesses to date, the latest being former Interior Minister Ayre Dery. Apart from Netanyahu, all of the politicians – including ministers and Knesset members – involved in the preparations for the 2021 event and earlier ones in recent years have appeared before the panel.

Several of the witnesses have said that Netanyahu was involved in the decision-making process when holiday arrangements were discussed between the police and the government, and that the prime minister urged the go ahead for the event. He did so even as the police warned that they would be unable to enforce the coronavirus restrictions that were in force at the time because the crowds were expected to be too big.

Two of the ministers – Dery and former Justice Minister Amir Ohana – told the committee that Netanyahu presided over meetings where the “open mountain” policy was agreed upon.

The witness who has provided most of the testimony about the former prime minister’s role in the affair is Yisrael Uzan, the former aide to Minister Dery. He told the panel that “political pressure was being exerted on him [Netanyahu]” to approve plans without restrictions on crowd size and that the former prime minister had become “hysterical” about the issue.

“United Torah Judaism lawmakers asked him to use the power of his office to ensure the event occurred without limitations,” Uzan said.

Like other witnesses, Uzan recounted that Netanyahu held a meeting on Lag Ba’omer preparations on April 11, 2021 with the police commissioner, ministers and the Health Ministry's top COVID expert. It was at that meeting that Netanyahu approved the policy of allowing unfettered access to Mount Meron, even before the police had held their own official deliberations on the matter. Dery told the committee that Netanyahu wanted “to calm down the Haredim.”

The ultra-Orthodox media reported that on April 12 Netanyahu had come to a United Torah Judaism faction meeting where he committed himself to preventing any restrictions being imposed on holiday celebrations.

The head of the office of the Israel Police’s northern commander said pressure was also exerted on her ahead of the meeting with Netanyahu. She recounted how Uzan had insisted on knowing where the police stood on the matter, saying “the prime minister is being pressured on this.” When she informed her boss, District Commander Shimon Levy, he responded: “I don’t work for the prime minister.” Nevertheless, discussions on the matter were held two days later.

Dery and others testified that on April 20 a phone conference was held during which Netanyahu tried to reach agreements with the ministries involved and the police vis a vis COVID-related restrictions.

“The prime minister was trying with all his might to persuade them – ‘Guys, anyway, be a little flexible here, try harder, take responsibility. Do you need more money? Do you need more cops?’” Dery recounted Netanyahu as saying.

Despite efforts to reach an agreement between the Health Ministry and the police, they had failed to do so by the day of the celebrations.

The problems of inadequate infrastructure and overcrowding at Mount Meron had been recognized for years before the 2021 Lag Ba’omer celebrations and disaster. Several witnesses said that in previous years they had appealed to the prime minister and his staff to put order into the Meron celebrations.

Former Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich said in his testimony that in 2016 he warned the prime minister that in the absence of a Lag Ba’omer organizer accountable to the government “the police can’t take exclusive responsibility for the public safety of the masses of celebrants at the event.”

A year later, David Amsalem, who was chairman of the Knesset Interior Committee at the time, told the prime minister and various ministries that he was concerned about a situation in which a holiday celebration involving 400,000 people was being defined as a “spontaneous event” with “no formal body to synchronize it.”

Almost all those who joined in the discussion before the 2021 event, including ministers, lawmakers, and health and law enforcement officials, have been called to testify before the committee, but not Netanyahu himself.

In the past, prime ministers appeared before government commissions of inquiry regarding events that occurred while they were in office. In 2001, Ehud Barak testified before the Or Commission examining the events of October 2000. Ehud Olmert appeared before a commission looking into the government’s actions during the evacuation of Gush Katif in 2009.

In response, the Mount Meron committee said: “The committee has not yet completed the work of hearing evidence from witnesses and, in any case, does not comment on whether one witness or another will be summoned in the future. “

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