Coalition crisis averted: PM breaks impasse over train work on Shabbat

On Thursday, politicians from the haredi parties threatened to leave the coalition.

August 26, 2016 10:43
2 minute read.
Haredi protest

Haredi protesters gather in front of the US Consulate General in Jerusalem to protest Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to US Congress. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prevented a coalition crisis Friday, after a long night of negotiations with Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz and haredi parties over construction on train lines on Shabbat.

On Thursday night, the heads of the haredi parties threatened to leave the coalition if the government is not more careful about respecting the Sabbath.

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The final compromise reached was that construction along the Ayalon Highway would continue to take place on Shabbat, because the road is congested on most weekdays and the work would endanger lives.

However, construction on train lines that would not endanger lives, like between Ben Gurion Airport and Modiin or between Bet Yehoshua and Atlit, would not take place on Shabbat.

In addition, a committee to coordinate between the Transportation Ministry and Shas and United Torah Judaism was formed. The group includes the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff, the Director-General of the Transportation Ministry, the Police Commissioner and ministers from the haredi parties or their representatives.

In a letter to the prime minister issued Thursday night, Health Minister and head of Agudat Yisrael Yaakov Litzman, Interior Minister and Shas chairman Aryeh Deri and head of Degel Hatorah MK Moshe Gafni said the construction would be “an unprecedented public desecration of Shabbat” and would constitute “a gross violation of the status quo” on religion and state issues.

“This process would lead de facto to the trampling of the public sabbath in the State of Israel, something which has not happened since the establishment of the State of Israel,” wrote the party heads.

They added that “we can not bear responsibility for a government that tramples on the holiness of Shabbat in public,” and called on Netanyahu to postpone the construction work until discussions could be held on the issue.

At the same time, Shas sent a separate letter threatening even more directly to quit the government should the construction go ahead.

Shas Knesset faction chairman MK Yoav Ben Tzur wrote to the prime minister saying that that the construction “would cross a red line for the religious and haredi communities,” and that such a breach of the status quo “would constitute a severe violation of the coalition agreement between Shas and Likud, with all the consequences inherent in such a step.”

Bayit Yehudi MKs began to chime in, with Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel saying that “breaking the status quo [on religion and state] can lead to a political crisis that no one wants.

“I understand that work on the train’s infrastructure is unique, but still, there is no place for a government company to work on Shabbat,” he stated. “I asked the prime minister to instruct the professional level responsible for this to find alternatives.”

Katz and the police, however, insisted that the work must be done on Shabbat to avoid endangering motorists on the Ayalon.

The crisis recalled a political row from 1999, when Ehud Barak was prime minister, over the Israel Electric Company planning to move a turbine on Shabbat. UTJ and Shas said they would pull out of the coalition if the plan was implemented, and many see the coalition crisis as the beginning of the end for the Barak government.

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