Sparking a test for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition, Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman is expected to resign from the cabinet Sunday, after railway repairs by Jewish workers took place on the Sabbath.
Netanyahu is considering moves to deter the United Torah Judaism bloc from destabilizing the coalition, including holding onto Litzman’s portfolio and keeping all of his staff at the Health Ministry, in order to tempt him back.
The Ministerial Committee for Legislation is expected to approve on Sunday a bill by UTJ MK Moshe Gafni to ban grocery stores from opening on Shabbat, including a controversial clause that will have the law apply to Tel Aviv.
The stipulation is an attempt to circumvent a recent High Court of Justice decision that allowed the Tel Aviv Municipality to give permits to 165 grocery stores to remain open on Shabbat.
The coalition is expected to push forward other haredi initiatives, as well, in order to appease Agudat Yisrael, the hassidic party in UTJ, over the issue of Shabbat, in light of its failure to stop the railway maintenance.
Litzman, the first minister ever from UTJ, announced his planned resignation Friday over Sabbath violations under the direction of the grand rabbi of the Gur hassidic group, of which he is a member.
Though United Torah Judaism says it is not leaving the coalition, a source in the party told The Jerusalem Post
they found it hard to believe that Litzman could simply resign, not secure an agreement to reduce maintenance work on Shabbat and allow business as usual to continue within the coalition.
The source said that if no such agreement is secured, Litzman could quite possibly instruct Agudat Yisrael’s MKs to cease voting with the government on legislation.
He may even insist that Meir Porush resign as deputy education minister, which would cause upheaval within United Torah Judaism, because Porush would then seek to return to the Knesset and force out MK Yaakov Asher, who belongs to the Degel Hatorah party, the non-hassidic constituent party of UTJ.
Still, Degel Hatorah said it is “not getting involved” in the coalition crisis.
A source in Shas, the other haredi party in the coalition, said the party is waiting to see what further steps Degel Hatorah and Agudat Yisrael takes before it takes any action.
Labor and Social Services Minister Haim Katz, whose portfolio includes authorizing work on Saturdays, said that for a year he managed to prevent a rail-related crisis, but that could not continue.
“Every Thursday, I authorize requests from Israel Railways. I’m familiar with their work; I went on tours [of work sites]... Every week, I consider the sensitivities of the religious public,” Katz told Meet the Press, pointing out that he had the rail company reduce the number of Jewish workers doing repairs on Shabbat.
Katz argued that because the rail repairs require a total shutdown of train service, doing so on a weekday would see over 1,000 more trucks on the roads, along with more private cars, which could lead to more accidents. Therefore, he said, conducting the repairs on Saturday saves lives.
“This was the decision that had to be made for the Israeli public,” Katz said.
On Friday, Netanyahu pleaded with Litzman to stay.
“Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appreciates Minister Ya’acov Litzman very much and hopes he won’t resign from the government,” a Likud spokesman said. “The faction heads clarified that they do not intend to leave the coalition, which will allow them to put together an ideal solution, which will observe Shabbat and the needs of the public for safe and consistent transportation.”
The Likud added that the current “nationalist government” is the best for Israel, and that Netanyahu is working to find a middle road that will allow it to remain stable.
Israel Railways has said that not working on Saturday would require a total shutdown of train service on a weekday, leaving thousands unable to commute to work.
Unlike last week, when a similar crisis was averted by using non-Jewish workers, this weekend, more than 100 engineers and technicians who are Jewish and considered essential to the work were used, the rail company explained.
Netanyahu negotiated with Litzman and Gafni on Wednesday and Thursday to find a compromise with Israel Railways, as did Katz.
Israel Railways was asked to formulate plans to significantly reduce the amount of maintenance conducted on Shabbat in the future.
The grand rabbi of the Gur hassidic community, Rabbi Yaakov Aryeh Alter, is known for his stringency on the issue of Shabbat.
When Litzman was forced to take on the role of full health minister, instead of just deputy minister, in August 2015, Alter reportedly expressed concern that his representative in the Knesset would be a full member of a government that publicly desecrates the Sabbath, but was eventually persuaded that the UTJ would prevent such Sabbath desecration.
According to sources, politicos in the grand rabbi’s coterie of advisers have agitated for him to take a stronger stance on the ongoing maintenance work on Shabbat, and have informed him in detail every time a new incident has arisen.
It remains unclear what the grand rabbi will decide if Litzman steps down as a full minister, but UTJ is still unable to impose its will on the government on this matter.
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