Israeli Commuters Pay the Price for Netanyahu's Capitulation to the Haredim

Transportation and Road Safety Minister Yisrael Katz’s days are numbered after he allegedly pulls a ‘Frank Underwood’ on Prime Minister Netanyahu in the Shabbat rail affair.

An illustration showing a gridlocked road and halted railway infrastructure works, with Netanyahu watching and saying "I screwed Katz over."
Amos Biderman

The railway crisis, which sprouted on Friday afternoon seemingly out of nowhere, is like a multicar collision with many victims. A technical, formal issue of infrastructure work on Shabbat — not in the ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea She’arim or Bnei Brak, but in secular Tel Aviv — has turned into a political, public, personal and social drama. The bottom line was experienced last night and will be experienced again today by hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians. They will be paying the price for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s surrender to the Haredim. It is too early to gauge the effect on the Israeli public, but new social protest is an option. Maybe the time has really come for it.

The core of the crisis is a personal-political struggle between Netanyahu and Transportation and Road Safety Minister Yisrael Katz — who is also head of the Likud secretariat. The defeat Katz recently suffered in the face-off with Netanyahu over the powers of the Likud chairman stung hard. Katz, according to the political schooling he received at the feet of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, was looking for revenge. People in Netanyahu’s immediate orbit are sure that Katz “Frank Underwooded” Netanyahu (referring to Kevin Spacey’s “House of Cards” character): He lit a fire with the ultra-Orthodox, in a calculated, malicious, Machiavellian manner, knowing that Netanyahu would have to yield to them and Israelis would see him as having sacrificed their well-being for his own political survival.

The urgent messages Netanyahu sent to the media just before Shabbat and on Saturday included a series of accusations of unprecedented harshness against the transportation minister. For only 10 percent of them, he should have fired Katz as soon as the three stars came out signaling the end of the Sabbath.

People close to Katz said on Saturday the dismissal letter would be coming sooner or later. When that happens, Katz plans to call a press conference and will get things off his chest. He will not mince words.

Even if Katz is not fired immediately or in the near future, Netanyahu’s statements show that the relationship between the two is beyond repair.

Long lines at the Carmel Beach Train Station, Haifa, September 3, 2016.
Rami Shllush

Katz seemingly knows this. The report he obviously commissioned on Channel 2’s current affairs program “Anashim” — in which he openly came out against Netanyahu for insisting on retaining the communications portfolio, and once again talked himself up as a future premier — is like twisting the knife after plunging it in. Only a person who thinks he has nothing to lose would choose this path.

Katz’s dismissal could create foment in Likud in the short term, but Netanyahu believes he can contain it. Katz is not blessed with an overabundance of charisma. Without the powerful transportation portfolio, and the hundreds of local council heads dependent on the minister in charge of it, he will fall from greatness.

As far as Netanyahu is concerned, this crisis is a problem. It is not his home turf, the one where he feels most comfortable — the playing field of right versus left, nationalists versus Israel haters. Here, everyone, including male and female soldiers, symbols of consensus, is angry at him. And so he’s passing the buck with all his might, hoping to deflect the anger onto Katz. This is a lost cause. The public will blame Netanyahu. The man who demands credit for everything in this country cannot avoid paying when things go wrong.

Two more points:

1. The three leaders of the ultra-Orthodox factions could have swallowed the Shabbat work on the three projects considered essential if someone had put them in their place. But knowing who they are dealing with, a man who is easy to pressure, they just had to do it. They could not agree to the work. They never had such a convenient prime minister as Netanyahu, with his political and coalition surroundings, and never had more convenient strategic partners. Such a basis should have created consensus instead of conflict, but the opposite happened. Maybe because of Katz, maybe because of Yoav Horowitz — Netanyahu’s chief of staff, whom the PM put in charge of managing things and apparently spoiled the broth — and maybe because of both of them.

2. For the opposition, this crisis is a gold mine and a diamond mine combined. It has all the elements of an effective way to challenge the government and its head. Meanwhile, Meretz — the only party that justifies the opposition title — submitted an urgent petition to the High Court of Justice over the dubious legality of Netanyahu’s order on the eve of Shabbat for Israel Railways to stop work and leave the train tracks dismantled.

Zionist Union Chairman Isaac Herzog walked between the raindrops, somewhere between political and social media commentator. But the most forlorn of the bunch was Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid, the politician who built his career on persecuting the Haredim until he realized this was not really worth his while politically. He chose to relate to the crisis like a shuttle manager, not like someone who wants to be prime minister, tweeting that Yesh Atid would put buses at the disposal of those who needed public transportation today. A few days ago, he organized a ridiculous ad for himself on his old channel (Channel 2), heroic and pompous, from Stockholm, where he was speaking at a pro-Israel event. Yesterday, for some reason, he could not make it to the TV studio.