Winners and losers in the Shabbat train scandal

Though the dust hasn’t settled, Litzman and the haredim have been hurt while Lapid and Katz have gained.

September 10, 2016 10:25
YAIR LAPID at the Knesset in July. The Yesh Atid chairman is perceived to have temporarily benefited

YAIR LAPID at the Knesset in July. The Yesh Atid chairman is perceived to have temporarily benefited from the train scandal.. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

The National Football League’s season kicks off this weekend in America, and soon after, professional and amateur analysts will be playing “Monday morning quarterback,” declaring why teams won and lost.

In the contact sport known as Israeli politics, sometimes it takes a few days to determine who came out on top, who fell behind and why. That is the case when it comes to the fight over the controversial work of Israel Railways on Shabbat.

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This time, the main players are Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, two Likud ministers named Katz, and haredi (ultra-Orthodox) politicians led by United Torah Judaism head Ya’acov Litzman.

But unlike in sporting events, the public at large was directly involved as well, as frustrated commuters suffered the consequences of Netanyahu’s decision to prevent any railway work or movement of trains on Shabbat.

The dispute has been going on for two weekends now, and by the time you read this, it could be happening again. But most of the players involved have a vested interest in ending the fight. So, while it is risky, perhaps it is already possible to look back at the battle in retrospect and judge who emerged victorious and who emerged vanquished.

In Israeli politics, the sting of a loss lingers longer than the joy of victory, and wins are fleeting and soon forgotten. Hence, the losers will be listed before the winners, with the biggest of each first.


Ya’akov Litzman and the haredim

No, this is not a misprint. Netanyahu is not the biggest loser of Traingate, despite his train wreck in the polls. The scandal harmed the haredim in general and Litzman in particular even more.

Someone must have been giving haredi politicians good advice in recent years to not be so sectarian, to take steps that help the general population, and to behave in as professional a manner as possible. It is no wonder that Litzman emerged as the cabinet’s most respected minister in a poll taken in January.

Well, that advice clearly went out the window with this crisis. Litzman’s rabbi, Gerrer Rebbe Yaakov Aryeh Alter, told him he must quit the cabinet if one railway worker so much as lifts a track on Shabbat.

Litzman relayed the message to Netanyahu, and suddenly hundreds of commuters were stranded, thousands more inconvenienced. Those commuters are upset with Litzman and his constituency, regardless of their religious beliefs.

When the poll of ministers’ popularity gets taken again, there is no doubt Litzman will fall. It will be interesting to see who takes the top spot, because the only other ministers who attracted 50 percent support in the last poll were former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon and Transportation Minister Israel Katz, who was himself hurt in this dispute.

By trying to get too much, Litzman and the haredim have once again helped Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, just like in the past they built up him and his father, the late Shinui leader Yosef Lapid. Perhaps if they knew they were crowning Lapid, they would have been more modest.

Benjamin Netanyahu

The prime minister has often been criticized for seeking advice from too many people, getting convinced by all of them, and implementing what the last person he spoke to told him to do. Perhaps he should have spoken to one more adviser before he shut down all the trains.

It is also likely he did not do enough ahead of Shabbat to mediate between all the sides and ensure that compromises could be reached. Netanyahu has been spending massive fivehour chunks of time briefing media outlets, when he could be solving problems in the country.

In those briefings, he spends an overwhelming amount of time justifying his behavior in previous crises and too little time explaining what he is doing to prevent the next one.

He reportedly explains how wonderful things are in the country on the economic, security, and diplomatic fronts, as well as spiritually. That message, which is being delivered via the odd method of off-therecord briefings, must not be reaching the public.

A Smith Research poll taken Wednesday found that 77% of the public and 74% of Likud voters believe his handling of the train crisis harmed his support in the public.

For the first time since the March 17, 2015, election, Netanyahu fell behind in the polls. A Midgam poll broadcast Tuesday predicted 24 seats for Yesh Atid and 22 for Netanyahu’s Likud, proving that the prime minister is not invincible and that even a man whose top rank was first sergeant like Lapid could beat him if security is not front and center in the race.

Netanyahu tells his critics that all of his predecessors gave in to the haredim, and all his successors will as well.

That is probably true, and the public could buy that.

And chances are security will come back to the limelight, which will work to the benefit of Netanyahu and whichever generals end up challenging him.

Transportation Minister Israel Katz

He could have been on the list of the winners. After all, he stood up to the haredim, taking a political risk by standing up to Netanyahu.

He flexed his muscles and proved his independence.

But that only goes so far.

Netanyahu threatened to fire him for the second time in a month and put Katz in his place.

Now Katz is on probation, and everyone knows the transportation minister’s wings have been clipped.

That will make it more difficult for him to use his two ministries and his chairmanship of the Likud’s governing secretariat to continue to advance himself politically.

The next time Netanyahu takes credit for Katz’s accomplishments, Katz will have to be silent.


As usual, when it comes to politics, it is the public that pays the price. Soldiers could not make it back to their bases, buses were packed, and workers were either late or did not make it to their workplaces at all.

But will that frustration be remembered if elections are held in 2018? Unlikely.


Yair Lapid

If only he could get the haredim to repeat their mistake with the trains the weekend before the next general election, he could guarantee himself the premiership.

To his credit, Lapid has behaved smartly. He speaks only on consensus issues, focuses on foreign policy and avoids attacking his rivals, including Netanyahu.

On matters of religion and state, he does not have to talk, because he gets voters on that issue without doing or saying anything, just because of his and his father’s reputation.

Adding a respected security figure near the top of his party’s list could carry him to victory.

Those who make the mistake of receiving the printed edition of The Jerusalem Post only on Fridays and not getting updated the rest of the week might be shocked to see Lapid treated like the heir apparent and Netanyahu like a corpse after a Post poll last Friday gave the Likud 27 seats and Yesh Atid 20.

There has been only one poll in Lapid’s favor so far.

There will be hundreds more polls before the next election, and keeping momentum will be very difficult.

Bayit Yehudi/Yisrael Beytenu

With all the noise about Lapid following that surprising poll, no one seems to have noticed that Yesh Atid was not the only party that did well.

Bayit Yehudi, which has eight seats in the current Knesset, was predicted to rise to 14. Yisrael Beytenu, which won six seats in the last election, received 10 in the poll.

Those extra seats were won in the poll at the expense of Netanyahu’s Likud. In the last election, Netanyahu raided the Likud’s political satellite parties successfully.

There is no guarantee he will be able to do it again.

Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman and Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett were silent this week, busy meeting American Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and starting the school year respectfully. To keep their support, Liberman and Bennett need to just keep doing their jobs.

Labor and Social Services Minister Haim Katz

This judgment of Katz as a winner could be out of date by Saturday, if the train crisis continues. But at the time this is being written, Katz looks like the country’s savior.

The High Court of Justice ruled that he and only he is in charge of deciding whether government employees will work on Shabbat. Netanyahu deferred and gladly handed Katz the hot potato.

Katz released a statement Thursday afternoon saying that only necessary work would be done this Shabbat, and the haredim were surprisingly silent. He has been meeting with all sides to prevent another blowup, and that silence could be the product of the fruit of the labor of the minister of labor.

With his power as head of the Likud central committee and the respect shown to him by all sides, Katz could end up near the top of the Likud’s next Knesset list. An appointment as finance minister could follow.


Perhaps the only profession more maligned in Israel than journalist and politician is taking polls.

Pollsters were disgraced following their poor performance after last year’s election.

Well, they’re back.

Suddenly, Midgam’s Mano Geva and Mina Tzemach were the talk of the town at the same time pollsters were given the limelight in the American elections.

Israelis are addicted to polls, and that apparently is not going to change.

Like the NFL stars, the pollsters are playing again, and they will continue to play, no matter how many times they fumble and get tackled.

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