Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday denied knowledge of safety issues and dismissed responsibility for last year’s Meron disaster in which 45 people died on Lag Ba’omer.
“I cannot take responsibility for something I did not know,” he told the State Commission of Inquiry, adding that his responsibility pertained to the epidemiological consequences of holding the festival during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In his testimony, Netanyahu said he “knew hundreds of thousands – 400,000 or 300,000; I do not remember exactly – of people came to Meron. I knew there was ongoing supervision as determined by a government decision.”
Netanyahu said he “did not know there was a critical safety issue. I heard about overcrowding but do not think we knew there was a safety issue.”
Netanyahu also said he was not directly involved in the growing safety situation in Mount Meron and that his role was “merely to approve the designation of a responsible body,” which was the Tourism Ministry at the time. “As prime minister, I don’t deal with such things,” he added.
Former judge Devora Berliner, the head of the panel, asked Netanyahu: “You were prime minister for 12 years. This issue has been floating around for 12 years. How do you explain that the issue has not been addressed?”
Netanyahu responded that he had done more about the subject than any other prime minister.
Berliner cited a State Comptroller’s Report that said there were serious deficiencies and safety hazards at the site. The document in question had a sub-document detailing the “prime minister’s comments on the audit report,” she said.
“Was this brought to your attention?” Berliner asked. “Your office has signed off on it.”
Netanyahu bureaucrats in the Prime Minister’s Office had dealt with the issue, and it was not brought to his attention.
“As prime minister, I received countless letters and requests,” Netanyahu said. “I only actually saw a small fraction of them, even if it’s from government committees.”
“There are hundreds, if not thousands, of safety issues even right now,” he said. “A disaster could happen at any moment; you can’t respond to every single one. These things happen.”
When asked about alleged pressure from the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community, Netanyahu said that was not the case.
“I have not been pressured by anyone, especially by the haredim,” he said. “In 2020, I made a very unpopular decision to close down Meron due to COVID-19 restrictions. How does that imply I was pressured?”
Health Ministry recommendations
Netanyahu said the decision to open Meron for the Lag Ba’omer festivities in 2021 was made solely according to recommendations by the Health Ministry.
Netanyahu’s testimony came at the end of 42 meetings and after hearing the testimony of 143 witnesses. He is expected to be the last witness to testify before the committee.
After his testimony, the committee will work on summarizing the evidence and publish warning letters to those deemed responsible for the disaster.
In its deliberations, the committee examined the preparations of the police and the government for the Lag Ba’omer festivities in 2021, which took place when COVID-19 restrictions on large events were still in effect.
Government ministers did not enact regulations exempting the festivities from COVID restrictions. At the same time, they failed to enforce those restrictions, turning a “blind eye” to the event, the committee was told.
The committee was also told that every year the number of participants increased, there was concern for the well-being of attendants, but no action was taken.
Netanyahu’s testimony came a few days after Northern District Police commander Shimon Lavi resigned.
Lavi justified his resignation as his taking responsibility for his part in the Meron disaster. The committee’s warning letters, however, were said to have played a part in his decision. The police denied the allegation and said his resignation was “for the reasons he has stated and nothing more.”