Will public transport run on Shabbat? It's now up to local authorities

Religious parties expressed outrage at the decision, demanding that the attorney-general step in.

Buses on a Public transport route in Jerusalem on March 16, 2020. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
Buses on a Public transport route in Jerusalem on March 16, 2020.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Local authorities will decide whether public transport will run on Shabbat after the government on Sunday approved a multi-year plan to establish regional authorities for transportation.

Each local authority will be assigned to a regional authority based on transportation links between the authorities. Each regional authority will manage transportation and traffic in their areas based on the authority transferred to them by the Transportation Ministry.

In the first stage of the plan, the regional authorities will initiate plans for implementing shared transportation projects. Each authority will include a representative council appointed from all the localities in the region.

In later stages, the regional authorities will receive more extensive authority to publish and handle tenders, enforcement and more.

According to the Transportation Ministry, a draft of regulations for the establishment of a regional transportation authority will be published within the next month and a regional transportation authority will be established in the Dan metropolitan area by April 2023.

 CONSTRUCTION OF the Allenby underground station of the red line in Tel Aviv. Chinese companies won contracts to construct parts of the Tel Aviv light rail. (credit: YOSSI ZELIGER/FLASH90) CONSTRUCTION OF the Allenby underground station of the red line in Tel Aviv. Chinese companies won contracts to construct parts of the Tel Aviv light rail. (credit: YOSSI ZELIGER/FLASH90)

 Regional authorities will also be established in the Haifa and Beersheba areas, the Negev and Galilee.

“[This is] a program that can reduce congestion on the roads delayed for 25 years. Today, we put an end to it and approved the model of metropolitan authorities that will empower the heads of the local authorities to manage transportation for the benefit of the residents as only they know how,” said Transportation Minister Meirav Michaeli.

“I believe in cooperation with the heads of the authorities, who happily support the process, which is why I insisted on the model that we approved today in the government and which will promote transportation authorities in metropolitan areas all over the country, and for the first time also in the Negev and the Galilee.”

Transportation Ministry Director-General Michal Frank stated that “This is a real revolution that supports our perception that transportation should be managed from the ground, in accordance with local and regional needs. The approved model makes it possible to immediately establish spatial authorities for transportation, and later we will advance legislation to gradually expand their powers.”

Decision sparks outrage from religious parties

The decision sparked outrage from religious parties, as the move would allow local authorities to operate public transportation on Shabbat.

The Shas party called the decision “populist” and promised to work to revoke it.

“A government that did not receive the trust of the people is carrying out a serious hijacking of a fundamental change of the status quo and is causing serious damage to Jewish identity just to garner votes for the elections,” said the party. “Everyone knows that this is a populist decision that will be changed immediately when we establish a national government supported by the majority of the people, who oppose turning the holy Sabbath into another working day.”

Shas added that it would demand that the attorney-general and the High Court of Justice step in to blocks the move.

Shas MK Moshe Arbel sent a letter to attorney-general Gali Baharav-Miara on Sunday, questioning why the decision to transfer power over public transport to local authorities was being made so close to the elections.

“The question of regional authorities, the need for them and the extent of the powers that will be given to them, is a central question and has many consequences, but it is not urgent and can be delayed until after the elections, when it will be decided by a government that is trusted by the public, unlike the current government,” wrote Arbel.

The MK urged the attorney-general not to allow Michaeli to “carry out hijackings during the twilight period between Knessets.”

“The provisions of the law and rulings must be upheld and the task of making decisions and managing transportation in Israel be left to the next government and the next transportation minister who will act out of national responsibility, professional motives and gain the trust of the public and the Knesset.”

Darkenu, a nonpartisan civil-society movement, welcomed Michaeli’s announcement on Sunday, calling it a “good decision to reduce traffic jams, good for the environment and good for Israel.”

“Every step towards more available, efficient and accessible public transportation for the residents of the cities and neighborhoods, while taking into account the unique characteristics of each place, including the Shabbat issue, is welcomed. Each and every one of us is entitled to receive Shabbat in our own way.”

Irit Rosenblum, the founder of the New Family Organization, welcomed the move, calling it a “first step towards granting independence to local authorities in a series of other issues, chief among them civil marriages.”

“As of today, the citizens of Israel are all held captive by a religious minority that insists on subordinating the lifestyles of all of us to its values that are so distant from us. The transfer of power in matters of transportation, as well as in matters of marriage and divorce to the local government, will give each local authority or group of authorities the power to allow their residents to live in a way that is consistent with their values and not one imposed on them by a religious minority that holds disproportionate control. In all democratic countries in the world, this is the method and it does not interfere with the existence of any religious ceremony nor in the will of the people getting married.”

Public transport on Shabbat remains a hot topic in politics

The decision to transfer powers over public transport to local authorities comes just weeks after Michaeli announced that she was working to allow the Tel Aviv light rail to operate on Shabbat, sparking outrage from right-wing parties.

Since its establishment, Israel has refrained from allowing public transportation on Shabbat. The issue has long served as a point of contention between secular communities and haredi (ultra-Orthodox) politicians who have pledged “preservation of Shabbat” in their election campaigns.

Religious Zionist Party leader Bezalel Smotrich said at the time that Michaeli was a “failed transportation minister.”

She decided to “trample on Shabbat in the State of Israel and harm the Jewish identity of the country as part of her election campaign,” he said.

“The upcoming elections are about whether the State of Israel will remain a Jewish and democratic state or, God forbid, will become a state for all its citizens led by the progressive Left along with the supporters of terrorism,” Smotrich said. “We will not let them [do this].”

Darkenu argued that “families without a car, young people without a driver’s license, students and anyone who wants to travel by public transportation on the weekend are left without a solution. For us this is a redline,” attorney Alva Kolan wrote in an appeal accompanying the Darkenu petition. “We ask that you work to promote an outline for operating the line on Shabbat in a way that will allow the population that wants it to use it, without harming the sanctity of the Shabbat in haredi cities. Each and every one of us is entitled to celebrate and experience Shabbat in our own way.”