Opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu testified on Thursday morning before the members of the state commission of inquiry into the Meron disaster.
According to a Kan News report on Wednesday, a document that Netanyahu failed to sign prior to the disaster may prove troublesome for the former prime minister. Netanyahu was required to sign a document exempting the Meron event from COVID regulations but never did so and did not convene the COVID cabinet on the issue. There was also testimony that there were some legal advisers in government ministries who warned at the time that the Meron event was not legal.
During his testimony, Netanyahu said that his “involvement as prime minister in Meron was marginal – no different from other mass events that take place in the country. There are mass gatherings every year and these events do not generally involve the prime minister unless a special safety or health question is presented to him. I intervened the year the disaster occurred only on the epidemiological issue. Those responsible for Meron are the tourism and religious affairs ministries.”
When the chair of the commission, Dvora Berliner, asked if he was aware of safety risks at Meron, Netanyahu answered: “No. There are many events in Israel in which tens of thousands participate.”
Berliner: You served in your position for 12 years during which the issues at Meron came up again and again. Why wasn’t the issue taken care of?”
Netanyahu: “I’m sorry, but I don’t accept the statement that nothing was addressed. We set up bodies and mechanisms that were supposed to be responsible for Meron. To the best of my knowledge, the only prime minister who set up a body called the Rashbi Foundation was me, in response to the auditor’s report.” [The Rashbi Foundation was eventually disbanded and the responsibility for Meron was transferred to the tourism ministry and later to the religious affairs ministry.]
When Berliner mentioned reports that Netanyahu caved in to the pressure of Chareidi politicians to hold the Meron event without COVID restrictions, Netanyahu responded: “I wasn’t pressured by anyone, especially the Chareidim. In 2020, I made a very unpopular decision to close down Meron due to COVID restrictions. How does that imply I was pressured?”
Regarding the event in 2021, Netanyahu said: “We were in the period of freeing up the economy and loosening the restrictions and therefore it was decided to allow the event at Meron. In a democratic country, it’s appropriate to respect the will of Chareidi and religious Jews who want freedom of religion at a time that the health situation allows it.”
Netanyahu added that “it’s important to say that I didn’t act according to the demands [of Chareidi politicians] but according to what the Health Ministry professionals, headed by Nachman Ash, instructed me.”
Netanyahu is expected to be the last witness to testify before the committee.
(YWN Israel Desk – Jerusalem)