This week’s Torah portion, Vayetze, begins with the words “and Ya’acov went out,” referring to Jacob the Patriarch leaving Beersheba.
On Friday, Israeli politics’ Ya’acov, as in Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman, made a dramatic exit of his own, from the coalition.
Technically, Litzman hasn’t resigned yet – he said on Friday he would do so if rail repairs were done by Jewish workers on Shabbat.
But, because the work happened on Saturday night, his resignation seemed like a foregone conclusion.
Many political questions remain about the situation.
Litzman is often referred to as the leader of United Torah Judaism, the Ashkenazi-haredi faction in the Knesset.
However, UTJ is made up of several blocs of different hassidic groups and the non-hassidic “Lithuanian” group, each of which has a different rabbi at its helm.
Reportedly, only the grand rabbi of the Gur hassidic group, of which Litzman is a member, insisted on resignation over the issue of Shabbat because ministers share collective responsibility for government decisions. That means Litzman would be partly responsible for violations of the Sabbath.
Still, it’s doubtful that, after Litzman made a public sacrifice on the altar of Shabbat, other haredi groups will be able to stand idly by as the Sabbath is violated.
At the moment, both UTJ sources and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said UTJ and Shas, the Sephardic haredi party in the coalition, are staying put.
However, another UTJ source said the hassidic MKs could start voting against the coalition because of Sabbath violations.
A move like that could trigger an election – one no one in the coalition actually wants, including the haredim.
UTJ and Shas have never had it so good in any coalition, and Netanyahu’s response to the crisis, which is to pander to them and push laws limiting Shabbat violations in the public sphere, only emphasizes how good they have it.
Some observers say Netanyahu put his foot down on the rail repairs because he’d like an early election before the investigations into corruption allegations against him wind down because they could end up with indictments.
They may point out that Netanyahu stood up to the haredi parties over the possibility of nationwide gridlock traffic if the trains are shut down on a weekday instead of Shabbat, and not over the egalitarian section in the Western Wall, which the prime minister promised to expand and then reneged to the chagrin of non-Orthodox Jewish leaders.
However, Netanyahu’s public and private statements show the opposite. For the past few days, the prime minister has spent many hours frantically searching for a solution to the train problem.
Less than an hour before the Sabbath on Friday, Netanyahu released a statement practically pleading with Litzman to stay, saying how much he values the minister.
He said they can keep working to find a compromise that won’t violate Shabbat and will keep “the best government for the Israeli people in all areas.”
And on Saturday night, a source close to the prime minister confirmed that Netanyahu plans to hold onto the health portfolio to tempt Litzman to return to it – even though he had already been chided by the High Court of Justice for doing so in the past. That’s in addition to the haredi legislative initiatives expected to be approved to deter UTJ from leaving the coalition and triggering an election.
Netanyahu is not rushing to get rid of the “best government,” as he called it, which is the most homogeneous, right wing and comfortable for him that he has ever led.
As for why the prime minister risked his alliance with the haredim now, as opposed to on the Western Wall issue, Netanyahu entrusted Labor and Social Services Minister Haim Katz, who authorizes work on Saturdays, with figuring out the issue – and Katz hit a dead end. Katz and Israel Railways agreed to only do work on Saturdays that is absolutely necessary for public safety, but Katz and the rail company said this Saturday’s job falls into that category.
In addition, it’s Netanyahu’s voters who will be sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic all day Sunday if repairs aren’t carried out on Shabbat, and they’ll be mad at him twice. First, for giving into the haredim and perceived religious coercion, and second, because they’ll be stuck in terrible traffic.
Such an outcome could give a boost to Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, who is viewed as anti-haredi.
As much grief as Netanyahu has gotten over the Western Wall, his voters don’t care nearly as much about it, and the issue is unlikely to cause a national shutdown.
So we entered this Shabbat with the open question of whether or not Litzman taking a stand will bring an election no one really wants.
Rashi, perhaps the most-studied Torah commentator, said of “And Ya’acov went out” that when a righteous man leaves a place, it makes an impression.
Righteous or not, Ya’acov Litzman’s departure will leave a mark on the coalition. Jeremy Sharon contributed to this report.
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