Knesset passes contentious Shabbat law by one vote after all-nighter

The Minimarket Law passed 58-57 but does not create new enforcement options against the many shops that open illegally on Shabbat and pay municipal fines.

AM:PM store in Israel (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
AM:PM store in Israel
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The controversial, Haredi-backed “minimarket bill,” which could bar more stores from opening on Shabbat, passed into law on Tuesday morning with a one-vote margin after an all-night debate.
The new law states that any municipality that wants to allow stores to open on Saturdays must receive the interior minister’s approval, which the current minister, Shas chairman Arye Deri, does not plan to give, although future ministers might.
Gas station convenience stores were exempted from the law.
The minimarkets law does not create new enforcement options against the many shops that open illegally on the Sabbath and pay municipal fines.
As expected, Yisrael Beytenu voted against the bill and MKs Sharren Haskel of Likud and Tali Ploskov of Kulanu skipped the vote, despite being in the coalition.
Coalition member Bayit Yehudi MK Motti Yogev and Zionist Union lawmaker Yossi Yona, in the opposition, were absent due to deaths in the family.
The legislation is part of a compromise Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made to appease the Haredi (ultra-orthodox) Shas and United Torah Judaism parties after they took umbrage at what they saw as an uptick in public violations of the Sabbath that led to then-health minister Ya’acov Litzman resigning from his post.
Many saw Deri’s push for the minimarkets bill as a way to enhance his image as a “protector of Shabbat” after Litzman one-upped him.
Netanyahu said in a Likud faction meeting on Monday that if the bill was voted down it had the potential to destabilize the coalition.
On Tuesday, Meretz party leader Zehava Galon filed a petition to the High Court of Justice to strike the new law as unconstitutional.
She argued that the law violates secular Israelis’ broad right to freedom and the specific right to freedom regarding their religious choices, such as whether to go to buy food products from stores on Shabbat.
She said that the law would give Interior Minister Arye Deri, who is Haredi, the power to “force his religious way of life” on the broader secular population.
Galon said that allowing the new law to stand would completely overturn the current balance between the secular and religious sectors across the country.
The law cures one defect for which the High Court had struck down a previous interior minister’s order to keep supermarkets in Tel Aviv closed on Shabbat – it does finally grant him the authority to override local municipal laws on the issue.
But it may run into problems with the High Court as it does not address the court’s broader objections to any state action or law which shifts the balance of the state’s Jewishness more prominently at the expense of its secular democratic principles. Galon asked the court to freeze the law until it issues a ruling.
The all-night plenum meeting was stopped for three hours because of the coalition’s narrow majority. The Knesset at first approved a change suggested by Zionist Union MK Itzik Shmuly, which excepted kitchenware stores from the law, in a vote in which the Knesset computers did not display the votes of Construction Minister Yoav Gallant and Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben-Dahan who said they voted against it.
The bill was then returned to the Knesset Interior Committee, which voted down the change, and the legislation was brought back to the plenum in its original version with the newly added gas station exemption.
Litzman said the bill “prevents the deterioration of the status quo on respecting the Sabbath.”
“The law expresses the stance of most of the people in Israel, who see Shabbat as the national day of rest, and for them, keeping Shabbat is a superior value for generations. Unlike the slander, the minimarkets law does not force anything. It strengthens the state’s Jewish character, with concern for the rights of thousands of workers whose income is harmed as a result of their work on Shabbat and prevents them from getting rest with their families, a basic right for all people,” Litzman said.
Coalition chairman David Amsalem (Likud) defended the bill, pointing out that: “In the last year the Supreme Court interpreted the law to greatly reduce the interior minister’s authority to intervene in local laws, in their ruling on the Tel Aviv local law about opening and closing businesses on the day of rest.”
Yisrael Beytenu MK Yulia Malinovski explained to her fellow coalition members why she felt the bill was wrong, focusing on the Likud where some MKs and ministers voiced reservations about it.
“The Likud is not a Haredi party. The Likud is a liberal party. The Likud is a party that knows how to be open, accepting, embracing, bridging and connecting,” Malinovski said. “What do we see here now? That the Likud is Shas number two.
That’s how we feel.”
Malinovski added that, historically, Likud’s leaders “did not put the sacred over liberty. It was balanced. Live and let live. Respect and get respect. They didn’t enter others’ homes. They didn’t do religious coercion. They didn’t force their values on people.”
Yesh Atid faction chairman Ofer Shelah accused Netanyahu of “fawning” over top UTJ MKs Litzman and Moshe Gafni after the mistaken change to the bill, “so that they will agree to give up on three meaningless words [that included kitchenware stores] in the minimarket law, yet they’re refusing. Not because they care about kitchenware being exempted from the bill, but because they know what the victory image will look like: the prime minister begging and ingratiating himself, and his masters saying ‘No.’” Opposition leader Isaac Herzog (Zionist Union) pointed to the extensive, weeks-long disputes within the coalition about the bill, saying that the government is falling apart.
“Each party making up the coalition is only busy with self-preservation, nonstop signaling to its political base and totally forgetting the point [of being in the Knesset],” Herzog said.
“How did we get to the point where our wonderful Shabbat, which everyone spends as they like, becomes a point of contention in the Knesset?” he asked.
Yonah Jeremy Bob contributed to this report.