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Likud sparks backlash after slamming Meron report as politically driven

Criticism came from within and without the ruling party over its response to the Meron commission's findings.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a Cabinet meeting at the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv, Dec. 31, 2023. Photo by Miriam Alster/Flash90.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a Cabinet meeting at the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv, Dec. 31, 2023. Photo by Miriam Alster/Flash90.

The Likud Party’s criticism of the State Commission of Inquiry’s findings into the 2021 Meron disaster, which held Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responsible, sparked a backlash, including from some within the governing coalition.

Thousands of mostly Chassidic Jews make an annual pilgrimmage to Mount Meron and the tomb of second-century sage Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, or Rashbi, on Lag B’Omer, the anniversary, or Yom Hillula, of the great rabbi’s death.

However, for years reports of overcrowding and subpar facilities at the site in the Upper Galilee went unaddressed.

On April 30, 2021, 45 Israelis were crushed to death and another 150 were injured during an early morning stampede. It was the worst civilian disaster in Israel’s history. A commission was established on June 20, 2021, to investigate the causes.

The commission’s findings, released on Wednesday, said that there was a “reasonable basis” to assume that Netanyahu knew about the poor condition of the facilities on Mount Meron and bore “personal responsibility” for not taking action to correct it.

Although Netanyahu has not commented on the report, his party released a statement noting that the commission was formed by the prime minister’s political opponents Naftali Bennett, formerly of the New Right Party, and Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid, now the leader of the opposition in the Knesset.

It noted that Maj. Gen. (res.) Shlomo Yanai, a key member of the commission, was a Lapid associate who was offered a place on the Yesh Atid Party’s Knesset candidates list.

“Lapid’s cynical and deliberate attempt to turn the Meron disaster into a political weapon will not succeed,” the Likud statement said.

Lapid chastized the Likud, calling its response a “disgrace and an injury to the memory of the Meron victims.

“All this in an attempt to detract from [Netanyahu’s] responsibility for a disaster that a state investigation committee determined emphatically he was responsible for,” Lapid said.

Other opposition members also criticized the Likud statement. Minister-without-Portfolio Gideon Sa’ar, a member of Benny Gantz’s National Unity faction, said: “There is not a single word of respect or appreciation for the work of the committee headed by Judge [Dvora] Berliner. The attempt to establish norms of evading responsibility by diversions about cheap political backbiting will no longer work in Israel.”

Members of Likud also attacked the party’s statement. Economy and Industry Minister Nir Barkat said, “It is a grave mistake to turn the commission of inquiry into the Meron disaster into a political event.

“This was a terrible disaster with a very heavy cost in human life and in order to prevent another disaster it is the duty of the elected officials to learn from the investigation committee and draw lessons,” he added.

Barkat was joined by Likud Knesset member Eli Dellal, who said, “If there is nothing good and wise for my leadership to say, it is better not to respond at all.”

Another Likud MK, Tali Gotliv, said, “I do not agree with Likud’s outrageous response to the conclusions of the Meron Committee. Forty-five people were killed in the Meron disaster. It is clear that many factors are responsible.”

Other coalition members joined the criticism. Zvi Sukkot of the Religious Zionism Party tweeted, “The attempt to define the investigative committee’s conclusions as political is sad, infuriating and disrespectful of the dozens of victims.”

Interior Minister Moshe Arbel of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party said, “I call on the Likud spokesperson to withdraw his shameful response regarding the Commission of Inquiry into the Meron disaster and its conclusions.”

The commission also blamed Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai, former Public Security Minister Amir Ohana and lower-level officials for the disaster.

The commission recommended that Shabtai step down as police commissioner. Ohana, currently speaker of the Knesset, should not be allowed to serve as minister of public security in the future, the report recommended.

The commission decided not to make specific recommendations regarding Netanyahu given that he holds an elected position.

Ohana, who posted his own reaction shortly after the Likud statement, did not attribute political motives to the commission, saying, “Since the Meron disaster, I have been carrying with me the grief of the families, those I comforted during shivah [the Jewish period of mourning] and those I did not, for the loss of their loved ones. At this time, my thoughts are with them.”

Israelis light candles for the 45 victims who were killed in a crowd crush at Mount Meron during Lag B’Omer celebrations, at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv. May 2, 2021. Photo by Tomer Neuberg/Flash90.

Noting that the report pointed to long-standing failures to address infrastructure problems during the annual Meron event, Ohana nevertheless said, “The disaster happened on my watch as minister of public security and therefore I have responsibility. I will study the report and do my best to draw the necessary lessons from it.”

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