In April 2007, the Winograd Commission published its interim findings. Established seven months earlier, the state-appointed commission of inquiry was tasked with investigating the Second Lebanon War, which ended in August 2006, to determine what went wrong, why so many soldiers died and why the country was left with a feeling that it had lost to Hezbollah.
The report was damning for then-prime minister Ehud Olmert and the 16 years of quiet that would come after the war, were still too far away. At the time, the commission, as well as the public, blamed him for the failures of the war. Olmert, the commission claimed, failed to adequately assess the IDF’s readiness, launched an offensive without a clear exit strategy and did not consider alternatives to a full-scale conflict.
In his party, Kadima, the knives were out. Tzipi Livni, his number two and eventual successor, demanded that he step down, as did other party members who were quoted saying there was no way Olmert could remain prime minister.
It would take another 16 months before Olmert announced his resignation, but that interim report was largely seen as the beginning of the end. Olmert was, at the time, under multiple police investigations, one of which would eventually send him to jail. But that was not enough to instigate calls for him to quit. Supposed poor war results were.
I thought of the Winograd Commission and Olmert this week, after the state-appointed commission set up to probe the 2021 Lag Baomer disaster at Meron sent warning letters to former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, former internal security minister Amir Ohana and police chief Kobi Shabtai. All three were warned they could be held responsible for Israel’s worst civil disaster.
The Mount Meron tragedy: 45 Israelis dead. Who will be held responsible?
Forty-five people were killed on that tragic night in April, when tens of thousands of people gathered at a mountaintop gravesite, not fit for such a crowd. Countless state comptroller reports had, over the years, alongside media reports, warned that something like this could happen, until it, unfortunately, did.
Like Olmert in 2007, Netanyahu is also currently facing legal troubles, albeit slightly more advanced: Olmert was then under police investigation; Netanyahu is already indicted and on trial. But like then, the legal troubles have not been enough to bring down Netanyahu. At times, it seems like the opposite: they embolden his followers.
The question now is whether this will change. Will someone in Likud stand up like Tzipi Livni did in 2007 and publicly call on Netanyahu to step down? Will someone say that it is one thing to have legal trouble but it is another to face a damning report by a state commission of inquiry that is hinting you are to blame for 45 deaths?
Will someone in Likud demand Netanyahu step down over the Meron disaster?
The answer is that this is unlikely. It is hard to see someone in Likud today brave enough to risk their political future. The truth is that it is hard to even expect that of them. As seen by the results of the recent primaries, anyone who did not align themselves completely behind Netanyahu fell. People like Yuli Edelstein, who used to be the number two on the list, fell to the 18th spot. Tzachi Hanegbi dropped to an unrealistic number. They didn’t call for Netanyahu to step down. All they did was simply not stand up for him all the time and occasionally challenged his authority.
Israel's haredi parties: Those killed at Meron were almost exclusively haredi
With Likud out of the picture, what is left are the haredi parties, which might be a different story. The 45 people who were killed last April were almost exclusively their constituents: people who came from haredi communities, who attended haredi institutions, and who likely voted for United Torah Judaism and Shas.
Will those parties continue to stand by the man who might be responsible for the deaths of their constituents? Will they ignore the pain and suffering of the 45 families and the countless orphans for political expediency or do they have their limits?
Until now, they have shown that limits do not exist. Last May, the Knesset tried to establish a commission of inquiry but the move was blocked, not just by the Likud but also by Haredi MKs who voted against it. Just to make that clear: haredi MKs whose constituents voted for them to be in the Knesset to preserve their interests, voted against a commission of inquiry that was meant to prevent these disasters from happening again.
Likud response to Meron warning: No remorse, no regret
The callousness was evident in a Likud statement put out after the commission issued its letters of warning. “Since the country was established, no state commission of inquiry sent warning letters to political candidates during an election period,” the party said, adding that it shared the families’ pain. “It is sad that this committee of investigation, which was established on the Bennett-Lapid government’s initiative, chose to do so.”
That’s it. No remorse, no regret. Just the same old political blame game we have been living through for the last four years, a warped time period during which the truth has meant very little and what rules is who can sling more mud at the other.
IT WAS a very different response from the statement Olmert put out after Winograd’s interim report. “I received the first part of the Winograd report and reviewed it,” the prime minister said then. “This is a severe report. There were mistakes and failures by decision-makers. We need to start to fix them and there is a lot that needs to be done.”
Notice the difference?
Netanyahu isn't necessarily the problem here
The problem here is not necessarily Netanyahu. Even Olmert back then refused to resign in the wake of the damning report. That would come more than a year later, when he realized that he could not keep his government together.
What all of this stems from is the severe accountability problem in this country. What happened at Meron is not just another mistake. It was a disaster that could have been prevented, had the powers that be cared about peoples’ lives more than they cared about politics. When Netanyahu appeared before the commission in July, he denied even knowing about the problems.
“I cannot take responsibility for something I did not know.”Benjamin Netanyahu
“I cannot take responsibility for something I did not know,” he said to the astonishment of the panel, adding – when pushed – that even though his office signed off on responses to state comptroller reports on the safety issues at Meron, he didn’t hear about them during his 12 years in office.
“As prime minister, I received countless letters and requests. I only actually saw a small fraction of them, even if it was from government committees,” Netanyahu said.
How this is supposed to be a defense clearly puzzled the commission that sent Netanyahu the letter.
Can this change? I am not sure.
Take Shabtai as an example. He was the person responsible for safety at the site and clearly failed. How he wakes up in the morning and thinks that he still has the legitimacy to serve as the head of the police is beyond me.
In comparison, following the Second Lebanon War, the chief of staff at the time, Dan Halutz, resigned just five months later. After Meron, the only person to step down was the commander of the police’s Northern District, and that was just a few weeks ago, more than 15 months after the disaster.
And let me stress, this is not about seeing someone punished just so people can feel good that something has been done. This is about something far more important.
Accountability: Without it, no one will take their jobs seriously
When there is no accountability, there is no reason that anyone should think that they need to take their jobs seriously. If nothing can happen to them, why will they care the next time they are in a position of power? And if Shabtai, the chief of police, sees that no one is doing anything and that his own minister says that “responsibility doesn’t mean blame” then why should he step down? He can also cling to his seat just like everyone else.
What this ultimately does is set us up for the next disaster. The next prime minister will also be able to hide behind the countless letters that Netanyahu said he received and the next public security minister will also be able to claim that he is not to blame.
When officials see those tactics work, why would they even bother trying to fix the problems that plague Israel? Why would they bother trying to solve some of the decades-old challenges that this country faces? They can hide behind excuses and a failure to hold people accountable.
For now, that is the unfortunate legacy of the Meron disaster.