Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu testified on Thursday before a state commission of inquiry that he had no knowledge of any serious safety risks at Mount Meron, the site of the stampede which led to the death of 45 religious pilgrims in April last year, considered to be the worst civilian disaster in Israeli history.
"You can say what could have been done, it is still not clear to me what caused the disaster," Netanyahu told the commission. "I just know that I, my responsibility is to make the necessary decisions according to the things that are brought to me."
"In retrospect, a terrible disaster happened here that I regret," Netanyahu said. But in the face of pressing questions from the commission whether he would take any responsibility as then-prime minister for the tragedy, he countered that "you can not accept responsibility for what you do not know."
Netanyahu, who was prime minister at the time of the disaster, was called in to testify following testimonies of witnesses who told the commission that he had pressured several agencies to hold the festivities despite the coronavirus restrictions which were in force at the time, and despite longstanding warnings regarding the faulty infrastructure at the compound.
If he had known about the risks to worshippers' safety at Mount Meron, he would have held a cabinet meeting as then-prime minister, Netanyahu said. But he claimed that he was not in charge of security issues. "I was in charge of epidemiological concerns. Without the coronavirus pandemic, I wouldn't have even been involved [in the event's planning]," Netanyahu testified before the commission.
The commission's chairman, former judge Dvora Berliner, insisted Netanyahu explain why the issue of crowding at the pilgrimage hadn't been dealt with throughout his 12 years term, despite being brought up several times. "I have a report for the State Comptroller from 2008 and another one from 2014 that repeats the same data," Berliner charged "you were prime minister for nearly 12 years… how can you explain this issue not been dealt with for all these years?"
"I reject that assumption your honor," Netanyahu replied and added: "the prime minister doesn't get involved in these things. I dealt only with the procedural side of the revelry, not the safety side." Netanyahu then claimed he was the only prime minister to "deal with it" after he was presented with the State Comptroller report.
Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana responded on Twitter that "Those who do not take responsibility should seek to take the helm of leadership."
Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman said Netanyahu also didn't know "about the plight of IDF soldiers, the elderly, Holocaust survivors, the disabled, social workers and many others. You didn't know, you didn't deal with it and in one year [the government under former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett] gave them significant salary increases and grants that improved their quality of life."
Other testimonies noted that Netanyahu had been informed about the poor state of things at Mount Meron on several occasions.
For example, it turned out that the Knesset’s Interior Committee turned to the prime minister in 2014 in order to determine who was responsible for holding these festivities.
Commissioner Roni Alsheikh testified that in 2016 he had sent an official letter to the Prime Minister’s Office, saying that “under present circumstances, in the absence of a producer for this event, the police could not be solely responsible for the safety of the tens of thousands of celebrants.”
A year later, as emerged from the testimony of MK David Amsalem who headed the Knesset committee, Netanyahu and other agencies were approached to put someone in charge. Amsalem wrote that he “viewed with gravity the fact that an annual event which includes 400,000 people, a mega-event held by the Religious Services Ministry, is described as a ‘spontaneous’ event, with no formal body synchronizing it.”
The most significant testimony regarding the pressure exerted by Netanyahu came from Yisarel Uzan, an assistant to then-Interior Minister Arye Dery. He said that “Netanyahu was hysterical over the issue” due to pressure put on him by ultra-Orthodox parties to hold the event, mainly by United Torah Judaism.
“Their lawmakers turned to the prime minister and asked him to put all his weight behind efforts to hold the festivities without any restrictions,” Uzan testified. He said that on April 11, less than three weeks before the event, Netanyahu set up a phone meeting related to the celebrations which involved a police representative.
According to Uzan, Netanyahu gave instructions throughout this meeting for holding the event without limiting the number of people attending it. The meeting was held before the official police position on this matter was known.
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Berliner confronted Netanyahu over Uzan's testimony that he was under political pressure from the ultra-Orthodox. "I didn't act in accordance with the pressure," the opposition leader replied. He then explained that "The ultra-Orthodox community certainly wanted Meron open" in 2020, but that under Health Ministry instruction it was not possible. In 2021, Netanyahu saw no reason not to fully open the venue since "the Health Ministry said it could be opened."
As for Uzan's claims about his "hysteric" behavior over the topic, Netanyahu said the adviser was not present at the meeting in question, adding: "I was very businesslike, and I manage these things with levelheadedness."
Then-Interior Minister Arye Dery and then-Public Security Minister Amir Ohana testified before the commission as well, saying that Netanyahu had held several meetings around the festivities, in contrast to previous years in which he had not dealt with this matter at all.
On April 20, nine days before the event, Netanyahu convened another meeting, attended by many cabinet members, Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai and the head of the National Security Council.
Dery told the commission about Netanyahu’s over-involvement. “The police, the Health Ministry and the body responsible for holy sites corresponded with each other but couldn’t come to an agreement," he said, adding that "Hasidic sects were under enormous pressure and there weren't any understandings. The police commissioner raised his voice when talking to coronavirus czar Nachman Ash, trying to reach such an understanding.”
“The prime minister, with all his force of persuasion, tried to get everyone to show some flexibility, to take responsibility. He asked if they needed more money or policemen. The conclusion was that everyone needed to try harder. He didn’t know all the details; you can’t have any complaints against him,” Dery said.
Netanyahu is the 144th, and last, witness to appear before the commission before it sends cautionary letters to people involved in the event’s production, including Police Commissioner Shabtai and the northern district commandeer Shimon Lavi.
Senior officials at the Religious Services Ministry and the national center for the development of religious sites, as well as engineers who were in charge of the event will also receive such letters, as well as politicians including then-Public Security Minister Amir Ohana and then-Religious Services Minister Yaakov Avitan.