Bibi Netanyahu no doubt had Israel’s Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai’s statement regarding the 2021 tragedy at Mount Meron in mind during his testimony before the state commission of inquiry. Shabtai, some months ago, confirmed that for anything that goes on involving the police he, as the commissioner, was ultimately responsible, even if he had neither direct nor indirect knowledge of any specific circumstance. What he questioned, though, is whether or not responsibility automatically infers guilt. Not surprisingly, he argued that it does not and that the two need to be examined and evaluated separately. And while it’s hard to remain academically detached from the worst civil catastrophe our country ever faced, he’s quite right. Responsibility and guilt are not umbilically attached.
The incident that shook up the country, Shabtai maintains, was due to engineering failures together with government-issued COVID-19 policies. So, yes, if there were any breaches in the procedures and protocols relating to the action and deployment of the police, he would rightly be the one to answer for them. However, insofar as he had no say in ensuring that the infrastructure and construction at the site were sound and were in compliance with rigid and professional standards, there is no reason why he should have to burden any of the guilt for what happened.
Shabtai, of course, has not been relieved of the position he has been serving in for the last year and a half, so he has not – yet, anyway – had to defend himself from immediate culpability that may have been the result of police negligence. That, of course, has still to be determined. What’s striking, though, is the marked difference between the perspective of the commissioner of the police and that of the former prime minister. Whereas the commissioner understands that leaders do not have the privilege of divorcing themselves entirely from even those events they have no direct control over, Netanyahu does not. Ignorance, in other words, provides the leader of the opposition a firewall behind which to hide.
Bibi is right, of course. “Things,” as he said, do happen (and had I not been addressing these comments to a respectable newspaper, I most surely would have used the more familiar colloquialism). The “things” our former prime minister is referring to, however, are those that are neither expected nor can be anticipated: a gaggle of geese gets sucked into a plane’s engine forcing an emergency landing in the Hudson River; a pacemaker malfunctions making the heart it is intended to protect suddenly vulnerable; a food product is mislabeled resulting in someone experiencing a severe allergic reaction.
What happened at Mount Meron, to be sure, was not a “thing”; it was intentional negligence that was the result of popularism and political bullying. What makes it worse than that it was absolutely avoidable is that it was entirely predictable. What will ultimately be determined is that the culprits in this matter will include those who chose to ignore the red flags that were waving in front of their noses as well as those who allowed themselves to be coerced into turning their heads in less troubling directions.
Mr. Netanyahu cannot simply shrug away this incident by claiming total innocence due to bureaucratic obfuscation. He will have no choice but to throw one of his intended coalition partners under the bus, and have either Shas or UJT take the fall. They, he will claim, believed that the engineering constraints and warnings were overstated and forced the police to look away at the overcrowding. Prime ministers, after all, cannot be expected to know what’s going on in every nook or cranny of the country. Unless, that is, it’s something worth claiming credit for.
That his remarks have not been placidly received – even by those whose allegiance and support he has always counted on – is both gratifying and welcome. Even his own Likud cohorts have, for once, not struggled to grasp onto his precious coattails. And while they may not have been publicly stating their concerns over his testimony, their silence cannot be ignored. On the contrary, leadership qualities come in many flavors and guises, and it is not all that difficult to spin his legal challenges into something trivial and meaningless. The refusal to accept responsibility for a disaster of this magnitude, on the other hand, displays an astonishing absence of leadership. It’s basic vanilla, a flavor so plain and simple that it cannot be camouflaged as something else. There is just no way to give his testimony a nod of approval.
It’ll be interesting to see how he walks back his obscene statements that he is free of any culpability. Claims that he was quoted out of context or that he was addressing a different set of circumstances will undoubtedly soon be issued. Even more interesting will be to see if Yair Lapid is indeed a mensch as Naftali Bennet inferred and will refrain from using this gaffe as campaign fodder. Although I differ with the Yesh Atid chairman on more than one issue, I suspect he will do the honorable thing and not make personal and political use of this sorry incident.
So, yes Bibi, “things” do happen. But by reducing the Mount Meron tragedy to “one of those things” he is not only cheapening the memory of those who died, but is absolving of blame anyone, including himself, who was involved in allowing dangerous conditions to go on without constraints. Which, of course, invites the occurrence of other similar “things.” And anyone who fails to understand that the directives, instructions and procedures that comprise public policy are ultimately the responsibility of the prime minister does not, well, deserve to serve in that office.