Opinion |

Limits on the Prime Minister’s Responsibility

Israel Harel
Israel Harel
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Opposition Leader Benjamin Netanyahu, last week.
Opposition Leader Benjamin Netanyahu, last week.Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv
Israel Harel
Israel Harel

During last year’s riots, Arabs murdered Jews, torched homes, burned synagogues, blocked major roads, burned and trampled symbols of government and besieged communities, army bases and an airport used for military operations.

The prime minister at the time, Benjamin Netanyahu, the great strategist, got vertigo and didn’t properly read the campaign map. He focused on the fighting with Hamas in the south while neglecting the critical domestic front, whose long-term strategic implications are many times more important than yet another round of fighting against Hamas.

The chorus of voices now demanding that Netanyahu be called to account over his responsibility for that same year’s fatal stampede at Mount Meron never demanded (back then) that he take responsibility for the multi-alarm failure over the riots.

Because the banner of revolt was raised by “an oppressed minority that went out to protest against years of discrimination,” Netanyahu was lauded rather than condemned for letting it “vent.”

Netanyahu has evaded responsibility in many cases. But he, like any prime minister, is not responsible for the safety of the Lag Ba’omer festivities at Mount Meron, or for any of the other festivals that frequently take place throughout the country. That’s also the view of much of the public.

Following Netanyahu’s appearance before Meron disaster commission of inquiry, his Likud party’s polling numbers improved (and Netanyahu and Likud are synonymous). As long as voters feel that Netanyahu is always being judged harshly while his rivals are judged leniently, support for him will only continue to increase.

Right now, a series of events are taking place in Tel Aviv’s Yarkon Park and tens of thousands of people are coming to each of them. If heaven forbid a disaster occurred at any one of them, nobody would dream of blaming Prime Minister Yair Lapid. (Does anyone remember the Arad Festival disaster?)

Even Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, whom the public likes, probably wouldn’t be accused of evading responsibility. And Culture Minister Chili Tropper, whom the media (rightly) loves, certainly wouldn’t be.

Responsibility for the Meron celebrations rests with the Religious Services Ministry, the most forsaken (and therefore unnecessary) executive branch agency in the country. In light of the way senior officials from the ministry have utterly shirked responsibility for the stampede, one can deduce how they behave on all the other issues, including the most sensitive ones affecting individuals and families.

Three decades ago, in exchange for his support for the Oslo Accords, then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin gave Shas Chairman Arye Dery the religious services portfolio. Dery quickly put his own people in every position that provides religious services and did whatever he pleased with the services. He even created fictitious jobs for party functionaries and relatives, and the Civil Service Commission approved them.

The media periodically railed about the corruption, but it focused on Dery and his people. Nobody claimed that Rabin, as prime minister, was responsible for the ministry’s unethical behavior. On the contrary, since the goal (Oslo) justified the means, Rabin was lauded for the brilliant political move.

His successor, Netanyahu, also very well understood that to ensure his remaining in power, the religious service turf “belonged” to Shas. And what about the nepotism, the corruption of the civil service and the debasement of vital religious services that at least some of the public needs? “They’re still allowed to do it.”

When Dery became interior minister, an entrenched bastion was created, and in practice, the Shas chairman also controlled the Religious Services Ministry. Dery, in his “holy” way, had secured a monopolistic grip for Shas and the ultra-Orthodox in general over the budgets of the two ministries. Through these budgets, he funded mass events like those at Meron and a similar one in Netivot.

That funding paid nice dividends at the ballot box in an age of recurring elections. And now Lapid, with the open encouragement of Netanyahu’s opponents, is wooing the ultra-Orthodox.

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