Ultra-Orthodox party leaders on Saturday night demanded an emergency meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, saying they object to rail infrastructure work being conducted over Shabbat, which they said is unnecessary and in contravention of the understanding they had reached with Transportation Minister Israel Katz on Friday.
“There was no agreement to do the construction [on the Sabbath], it seems Katz is a professional liar,” MK Moshe Gafni, head of Degel Hatorah, said Saturday night. “We’ve seen this in the last couple of months, that he has lied to us for political purposes.”
Sources have said that haredi leaders are set to demand Netanyahu sacks Katz. The transportation minister has recently been a thorn in the prime minister's side within the Likud party, maneuvering to try and take internal powers away from Netanyahu.
Part of the Ayalon Highway was closed for 27 hours over Shabbat for rail infrastructure work, which Katz said was done “on the weekend in light of all the considerations and according to the opinion of the police, which said construction on a weekday would endanger lives.”
Katz, who visited the site Saturday night, respects Jewish traditions and supports Israel’s Jewish and democratic character, as well as the statusquo on religion and state, which requires secular and religious people to compromise.
A compromise reached Friday between Katz and the haredi parties permitted construction on Shabbat along the Ayalon Highway to expand the Tel Aviv Shalom Railway Station, because the road is congested on most weekdays and work at that time would endanger lives.
Under the agreement, construction on train lines that would not endanger lives if performed during the week, such as between Ben-Gurion Airport and Modi’in or between Bet Yehoshua and Atlit, still would not be permitted on Shabbat.
As part of the agreement, a committee was formed to coordinate among the Transportation Ministry and Shas and United Torah Judaism (which is comprised of Agudat Yisrael and Degel Hatorah). The group includes the prime minister’s chief of staff, the director-general of the Transportation Ministry, the Israel Police commissioner and ministers from the haredi parties or their representatives.
On Thursday night, the heads of the haredi parties had threatened to leave the coalition if the government is not more careful about respecting the Sabbath, and it was thought the compromise had averted the crisis.
In a letter to the prime minister Thursday night before the compromise was reached, Health Minister and head of Agudat Yisrael Ya’acov Litzman, Interior Minister and Shas chairman Arye Deri and Gafni said the construction would be “an unprecedented public desecration of Shabbat” and 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,” the party heads continued.
“We cannot bear responsibility for a government that tramples on the holiness of Shabbat in public,” they added, calling 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 Yoav Ben-Tzur wrote to the prime minister saying construction on Shabbat “would cross a redline for the Orthodox and haredi [ultra-Orthodox] 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 lawmakers 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 railway infrastructure is a special case, but still, there is no place for a state 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 on the Ayalon must be done on Shabbat to avoid endangering motorists and, following the agreement, rail infrastructure work was done on the Ayalon over Shabbat.
The crisis recalled a political row from 1999, when Ehud Barak was prime minister, over plans by Israel Electric to move a generator turbine on Shabbat. UTJ and Shas said they would pull out of the coalition if the plan were implemented, and many see that coalition crisis as the beginning of the end of the Barak government.
The head of the secularist Israel Be Free movement, Tel Aviv Municipal Council member for Meretz Mickey Gitzin, strongly criticized the prime minister for conceding to the demands of the ultra-Orthodox parties and the mostly national-religious Bayit Yehudi, saying infrastructure work had been conducted without hindrance for years.
“It is unthinkable that Israeli citizens, who already pay a heavy price because there is no effective transportation in Israel because of the Shabbat caprices of the haredi parties, will now pay a price in human life for infrastructure work,” said Gitzin.