Will the bill to close stores on Shabbat hurt Likud at the ballot box?

The "minimarkets bill" creates an image issue for Likud, says Science and Technology Minister Ofir Akunis.

A woman shops at a supermarket in Jerusalem June 19, 2016.  (photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)
A woman shops at a supermarket in Jerusalem June 19, 2016.
(photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)
Strife deepened in the coalition over legislation that would stop more stores from opening on the Sabbath, as Science and Technology Minister Ofir Akunis warned the bill is politically damaging for the Likud.
“My personal opinion is that the Likud shouldn’t support this. It’s not right for us,” Akunis told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday. “I think this isn’t a good bill, in its essence.”
The “minimarkets bill” is part of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s agreement with the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties following a coalition crisis over public violations of Shabbat.
If it becomes law, it will require municipalities that want to pass local laws allowing stores to be open on the Sabbath to receive permission to do so from the interior minister, which current Interior Minister Arye Deri of Shas is not expected to give.
The legislation would not apply retroactively, such that municipalities that already allow stores to be open on the Jewish day of rest would not have to shutter them.
Akunis, the first Likud minister to openly oppose the bill, said “it will hurt the Likud electorally,” and not any other party in the coalition.
The minister argued that municipalities should be able to decide on the issue, according to the local population’s lifestyle: “Mayors should be able to use their judgment to decide.”
Still, Akunis will not vote against the measure, because doing so on a government bill is akin to resigning for a minister.
Another Likud minister, who asked to remain anonymous, said: “I agree with the idea [of the bill]. We want to preserve Shabbat. It has a positive side, a Jewish one, and one of worker’s rights.”
However, he argued, it creates an image issue for the Likud.
"We can explain each thing on its own, like with the Kotel: You can say it isn’t important to people, because they don’t go,” the minister said, “but it can all add up to too much. And it’s clear that things are adding up. To win an election, you can’t just be Right or Left, you need the Center.”
Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, who is thought to be one of the Likud’s more liberal ministers, does not agree with Akunis’s assessment.
“We’re part of the coalition, and I don’t think this goes beyond our commitment as members of the coalition to preserve the status quo” on matters of religion and state, he said.
According to Hanegbi, “most Likud voters are traditional and are for the status quo. Some are secular and want to preserve their freedom of choice. To them I say the interior minister has to give a detailed explanation [if he denies a municipality the right to open stores on Shabbat], and he can be brought to the court, so I don’t think there will be a real change.
“I don’t see any particular drama here,” Hanegbi added.
Should Akunis try to skip the vote and find someone in the opposition to offset his absence by also leaving the room, he may run into trouble. When the bill went to a first vote nearly two weeks ago, opposition MKs refused to offset anyone, and it took hours of negotiations well into the night before the coalition pulled together a narrow majority.
Making the bill’s passage even more difficult was coalition member Yisrael Beytenu’s continued refusal to support it, arguing that it is religious coercion. In addition, Kulanu MK Tali Ploskov and Likud MK Sharren Haskel strongly opposed the bill and skipped the vote.
In a Knesset Interior Committee on the bill Thursday, MK Yulia Malinovski of Yisrael Beytenu explained her faction’s position.
“We’re Jewish. On Thursday night, all of the members of the faction went to the Western Wall. This is important to us and not religion. We are for free will,” Malinovski said. “I have a relative who is a rabbi who invites us to Shabbat meals even though he knows I come in a car and go out to smoke, but my children hear Shabbat songs. Local governments also have sense and the will and the ability to look at things in depth. They know what’s happening in their cities.”
Malinovski suggested that the bill require a two-thirds vote in local councils for stores to operate, rather than the interior minister’s approval.
The opposition also came out strongly against the initiative.
Meretz lawmaker Tamar Zandberg said she can’t remember such a large public outcry against a bill.
“People want to visit their grandparents and buy sunflower seeds on the way,” Zandberg argued. “Let them do what they want, not what you [religious MKs] want. This government wants to whack them on the head with a bat. This is a bill for a tiny, extremist minority. If we want to talk about Shabbat for everyone, instead of going to war, let’s work on a historic compromise. Let’s close major shopping centers, but allow public transportation on Shabbat.”
Bayit Yehudi MK Bezalel Smotrich, however, posited that “opening businesses on Shabbat will renew slavery and harm the equality of religious people.
“This is the only country in which hatred of religion comes before social values. Hatred is driving a small part of the public out of its mind,” Smotrich said.