Shabbat wars causing coalition friction

Shas threatens to quit coalition over move to allow opening of more grocery shops in Tel Aviv on Shabbat.

A grocery store that stays open on Shabbat, across from Mamilla Mall (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
A grocery store that stays open on Shabbat, across from Mamilla Mall
Tensions in the coalition are rising over the issue of Shabbat in the public realm, with Shas and United Torah Judaism demanding that a bylaw proposed by the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality allowing a certain number of grocery stores in the city to open on Shabbat be rejected by the government.
The bylaw has been waiting for approval since August 2014, and the failure to come to an agreement resulted in a petition to the High Court of Justice by small grocery stores in Tel Aviv who oppose the bylaw. The High Court has now turned to the government demanding an answer, but all sides in the debate are reluctant to make a decision on the bylaw due to the sensitive nature of the issue.
Shas has in particular been forthright in its opposition to the bylaw. Speaking to The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday, MK Yoav Ben-Tzur, chairman of the Shas Knesset faction, said the party viewed the issue extremely seriously and that it would not allow the government to agree to the current proposal.
Many cities, including Jerusalem, have bylaws that were enacted many years ago to prohibit businesses from opening on Shabbat unless they were leisure-oriented, such as restaurants, cafes and cinemas.
In Tel Aviv, grocery stores have been open for many years despite the ban and have simply paid the small fines levied on them by the municipality for the violation, since the low fines made it financially worthwhile for larger stores to remain open.
The issue was brought to the High Court in 2013, following a petition from small grocery store owners that asked the municipality to enforce its own bylaws. The High Court ruled in favor of the small business owners, but also suggested that city hall change the old bylaw.
Tel Aviv-Jaffa submitted its final version of the bylaw to then interior minister Gideon Sa’ar in August 2014 for approval, as required by law, but Sa’ar subsequently stepped down as minister in September. Gilad Erdan was appointed interior minister in November that year but the government collapsed and new elections were called.
The bylaw has been awaiting approval since the new government was formed in May 2015 but the sensitivities of the issue have prevented a decision on the issue.
“This is a day of rest for all citizens,” said Ben-Tzur. “The large grocery store chains that are open on Shabbat force the small, independent stores to remain open since they will suffer economic loss if they don’t compete with the chains, and this is unacceptable. It’s not even about Shabbat, its about the right of every citizen to have a day of rest.”
Asked if Shas was willing to endanger the stability of the coalition on the issue, Ben- Tzur said “yes, definitely.”
At the cabinet meeting held on Sunday this week, a fierce debate was conducted on the issue, but it was eventually decided to request an extension from the High Court in order to give the government more time to devise an agreed upon solution.
One consideration being proposed is to set up a committee of the directors of the interior, justice, religion and economy ministries who will provide new recommendations for the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipal Council to adopt in a revise version of the bylaw.
“It is a pity that the government is ignoring the clear and reasonable bylaw proposed by the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipal Council,” Mickey Gitzin, a Meretz representative on the municipal council told the Post.
“The fact that the government is ignoring the wishes of the municipal council places a large question mark over the role of local government in Israel.
“It is very regrettable that govt is returning us to the Shabbat wars of previous decades instead of being responsible, if it refuses to approve the bylaw we will have to go to the High Court ourselves.”