The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion In Israel’s stampede tragedy, the buck stops with Netanyahu

Israeli youths light candles in memory of the 45 ultra-Orthodox Jews killed in a stampede at a religious festival on Friday, during a vigil in Tel Aviv, Israel on Sunday. (Oded Balilty/AP)

“In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes.” So reads the last line in the biblical Book of Judges, summing up cascading tragedies before the tribes of Israel realized they needed a government.

The words sliced into my thoughts on Friday morning in Jerusalem, as I tried to absorb news reports from Mount Meron in the Galilee. At the annual spring pilgrimage to the grave of ancient sage Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, a crowd of ultra-Orthodox men and boys had tried to leave via a narrow passage and slippery stairs — and turned into a human avalanche. At least 45 people were crushed to death. Fathers were desperately searching for sons, brothers for brothers. “I came to evacuate a boy without a pulse,” a volunteer told an interviewer. “Just then [the boy’s] phone rang, and ‘Mom’ lit up on the screen.”

That very morning, reports began emerging of all the warnings beforehand of a likely disaster at this place and event.

To think of there being “no king in Israel” today is counterintuitive. We have a long-reigning leader who, while officially the prime minister, sees himself as Benjamin I of the House of Netanyahu. He has a residence in the capital and a second palatial home, appropriately, in the town of Caesarea. He regards prosecuting him for corruption as seditious and makes state ceremonies into celebrations of himself.

Netanyahu has come to resemble a medieval king whose rule over outlying provinces is fading. Staying in power and out of jail are his main concerns; keeping the state functioning is not. His most recent government fell because he would not pass a state budget. His ministers are chosen not for competence but lapdog loyalty.

Occasionally, he makes forays into governing, as when he reached the deal for Israel’s vaccine supply. The blaring of the king’s trumpets distracts attention from the wider decay of the state.

An incident last week is illustrative. On Tuesday, the cabinet was supposed to impose new quarantine rules on travelers from pandemic-engulfed India. But Israel’s Supreme Court had ordered the cabinet to appoint a justice minister, a post that Netanyahu, who himself faces criminal charges, had avoided filling. In the chaotic cabinet meeting, Netanyahu ignored legal advice and pushed through the appointment of a lackey from his Likud Party. Afterward, facing defeat in court, he reversed course and gave the post to Benny Gantz, his estranged centrist coalition partner.

And the quarantine rules did not come up for a vote.

Netanyahu’s retreat from governing is most blatant in his relation to the haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, community. For decades, governments, especially of the right, have allowed the self-segregating minority to exist in an autonomous bubble, largely exempt from the draft and from secular educational requirements.

Yet Netanyahu has taken the transactional partnership between the right and the ultra-Orthodox to an extreme. The two haredi parties show total loyalty to him as coalition partners. They count on him to stop legislation they oppose and to protect fiefdoms within state bureaucracy that provide them with jobs.

During the pandemic, police often ignored or responded weakly to blatant violations of lockdowns and health rules among the ultra-Orthodox: schools that stayed open when others shut, large weddings and funerals that took place when mass gatherings were banned. The price was quicker spread of the virus and more deaths.

No one was surprised, therefore, when Netanyahu overruled a Health Ministry recommendation to limit the pilgrimage to Mount Meron to 15,000 this year. Ministry experts worried about a new outbreak of the coronavirus. Netanyahu, desperately trying to put together a new coalition, worried about fissures in haredi support.

On Thursday night, an estimated 100,000 people reportedly packed into the holy site. Whether or not this spread the virus, another disaster struck first, as people leaving one courtyard stampeded and were crushed.

In the aftermath, journalists have dug up the government comptroller’s report from December 2008 — just before Netanyahu returned to power — that pointed to crowding dangers at the holy site. After that came the comptroller’s follow-up report in 2011, and the senior police commander’s warning five years ago. This year, police officers reportedly discussed the dangers but approved the pilgrimage. In a diagram of responsibility, the lines lead to a prime minister more interested in preserving his rule than protecting the public. The buck stops there.

All this takes place while Netanyahu and his parliamentary opponents compete to form a new government. If the opponents succeed, they’ll have a coalition stretching from right to left, most likely incapable of grand policy changes. What Israelis can desperately hope for is that a new government will want to govern, that it will value competence, that it will care about citizens’ safety. This is not much to hope for, and yet a great deal.

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