Hard Questions, Tough Answers: The Mount Meron Tragedy is a Dangerous Symptom (May 3, 2021)


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

The Mount Meron tragedy is a dangerous symptom


Q. The Mount Meron tragedy in Upper Galilee on the Lag b’Omer holiday last week could have happened any year. Officials had long been warning about the dangers of precisely such a stampede. So why this year when, due to Covid-19, holiday attendance at Mt. Meron was actually down? What is the tragedy symptomatic of?

A. The tragedy, in which 45 Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) men and boys (among them six US citizens) lost their lives, transpired in 2021 and not earlier for a reason, or rather for two reasons. One reason is two years of dysfunctional governance under Prime Minister Netanyahu’s repeated interim governments. The other, not unrelated, is the growing and corrupt political presence of the Haredim in Israeli life.

We can and must discuss these issues without in any way denigrating the tragedy and the needless loss of life last Friday at 1a.m. on Mt. Meron. The 45 victims were innocent.


Q. Let’s break down your arguments. We know about the past two years of dysfunction. But why is the Haredi political presence corrupting, and why is it related to the current dysfunction?

A. The Haredi political parties are not democratic. Rabbis appoint the Knesset lists, tell their flock to vote for them, then tell the Haredi members of Knesset how to vote. No women are included in these Knesset contingents. The parties are organized along strict Ashkenazic and Sephardic lines. Their objective in the Knesset is to ensure generous budgetary allotments for Haredi institutions, nothing more. They don’t have to account to anyone for anything else.

The Haredim are by and large not Zionist and seek to avoid military service. Many refuse to teach the basic Israeli secular curriculum--civics, math, English--despite state subsidies for their educational project. They seek autonomy--in Bnei Brak, in Mea Shearim, and at Mt. Meron, where a small and overcrowded ceremonial space is physically divided by rival Haredi sects and no one is in overall charge.

Haredi policies reinforce misogyny and acute disunity in Israeli life. They are anti-LGBTQ. And they represent only eleven percent of the population.

This makes the Haredim the perfect coalition partner for Benjamin Netanyahu, who forgives their unwillingness to get involved in the Zionist project and guarantees the money they need for their yeshivas and large families as long as they blindly support his leadership. It wasn’t always this way. Back around 20 years ago, when Netanyahu was minister of finance under PM Ariel Sharon, he cut Haredi subsidies, briefly forcing the ultra-Orthodox to reduce their extraordinary birth rate and seek real jobs. But Netanyahu, after 12 consecutive years at the pinnacle of power, has also become deeply corrupt.

The upshot of this brief analysis is that the disaster at Mt. Meron transpired because a corrupt prime minister appointed an avid lackey as domestic security minister, who in turn appointed an inept chief of the Israel Police, who could not demand that the Haredi organizers at Mt. Meron accept his safety directives. The police backed off from enforcing safety regulations at the Mt. Meron gathering because they were confronted by Haredi leaders who threatened to get them fired. These are Haredi leaders who, thanks to their Knesset clout, are certain of the autonomy they enjoy in Israel to hold mass gatherings, maskless, in defiance not only of corona regulations but of basic safety precautions.

Not a single Haredi leader has taken responsibility for what happened to their flock. Other than the Israel Police head of the Northern District, not a single non-Haredi has taken responsibility. Oh yes, Domestic Security Minister Amir Ohana stated, “I am responsible, but that doesn’t mean I bear guilt”. George Orwell would feel comfortable in this atmosphere.

Netanyahu himself? Not a word, other than declaring Sunday to be a national day of mourning--a gesture never offered in past years when dozens died in similar non-military accidents like the Mt. Carmel blaze that killed 44 firefighters in 2010. Those were firefighters risking their lives, not lifetime yeshiva students financed by secular tax money.

These days Israel is increasingly religious, so conveniently exaggerated rituals of mourning can replace objective inquiry. This ‘mourning porn’ is all over the ostensibly secular media. As for the Haredim themselves, many of whom don’t watch television or have smartphones, this was simply “God’s will”.

Netanyahu desperately needs to maintain Haredi support as he fights to stay in office. That’s why thus far he has ignored the growing tide of demands from the public for an independent national commission of inquiry. If his government is responsible, then he is responsible. Hence no inquiry.

In an orderly country with solid governance, Netanyahu, Ohana, Minister for the Interior and the Negev and Galilee Aryeh Deri, and the chief of police would have resigned already. Haredi leaders, political and religious, would have resigned. There is innocent blood of fervent believers on all their hands.

Thus far no one has resigned.


Q. If Mt. Meron is symptomatic, and if the past two years of political anarchy in particular contributed, then many other aspects of Israeli policymaking and governance are being mismanaged. . .

A. Indeed, the situation is acute, and can only worsen as long as Netanyahu clings to power and prevents the emergence of a fully functioning government.


Q. Iran, for example?

A. Iran is the best example. Netanyahu is barely functioning and key issues like Iran are barely discussed in the government because decision-making bodies don’t convene due to poisoned politics. Netanyahu and President Biden are essentially not speaking, even as Netanyahu blusters dangerously about not abiding by any renewed nuclear deal. Accordingly, Israel’s ability to influence the Biden administration regarding that emerging deal is limited. If Biden received Mossad Head Yossi Cohen last week for a one-on-one without a photo-op, this primarily reflected the administration’s desire to downplay disagreements with Israel and ‘advise’ Jerusalem not to interfere.


Q. What else is being neglected?

A. US pressure on Israel to downgrade strategic-commercial relations with China. Israelis are inclined to view China as a commercial opportunity; the United States sees China as a strategic threat. Looking at Chinese involvement in the Tel Aviv metro, the Haifa and Ashdod ports, and Israeli academic hi-tech research, one can only conclude that Netanyahu has not fully understood the message from Washington.

Nor does Netanyahu have any apparent strategy for dealing with the Palestinians--whether the issue is their discontent in Gaza, cancelled elections in both Gaza and the West Bank, or rioting in Jerusalem. He’s lucky that thus far this situation has not blown up in Israel’s face. But he is actively contributing to the weakening of the Palestinian Authority and the strengthening of Hamas, meaning political Islam. Notably, the reality of weakened Palestinian society is reflected closer to home in the sharp rise in criminal violence in Israel’s Arab towns and villages. Of course, there are many Arab reasons for this phenomenon. But one key factor is acute government neglect.

Enter political Islam on the Israeli scene. The rise of Mansour Abbas’s Raam party is symptomatic. Raam, like Hamas, is essentially the Muslim Brotherhood. That Abbas, a very skillful politician, has energetically entered the mainstream political scene and on a law-and-order platform to boot--both precedents for Israeli Arab parties--is on the one hand to be welcomed in the name of democracy and pluralism. But on the other, Abbas’s emergence as a power broker amidst Israel’s acutely broken politics reflects the tragic and prolonged inability of Israel’s Jewish politicians, representing eighty percent of Israelis, to get their political act together.

Strikingly, Israel’s more secular Arab politicians, represented in the Joint List, appear to be as cowed by Raam’s performance as the Palestinian Authority is by Hamas. This strengthening of Islamist currents bodes ill for Palestinian politics in both the West Bank and Israel. Indeed, it bodes ill for Israel in general. Israeli governments are burdened enough already by Jewish fundamentalism; Muslim fundamentalism will not improve the situation.

Finally, plain old governance is being neglected. Key civil servants are not being appointed, not to mention key ministers and ambassadors. Laws are not being enforced. Important weapons systems are not being budgeted.

The tragedy at Mt. Meron is indeed symptomatic.


Q. Netanyahu’s mandate to form a government expires Tuesday night this week. What’s going to happen?

A. I don’t know. At the time of writing on Monday, Netanyahu himself may not know. He’ll ask for an extension? He’ll yield to Naftali Bennet’s demand to head the government? He’ll coopt and hoodwink Benny Gantz again? He’ll let Yair Lapid try to form an alternative coalition, hoping that failure will lead to a fifth consecutive round of elections around September, giving Netanyahu another half year as caretaker PM?

Will the Mt. Meron disaster, which transpired on Netanyahu’s watch, make a difference to his political fate? Lest we lose track, Netanyahu’s trial on three counts of corruption resumes the same day his mandate expires.