Netanyahu, ultra-Orthodox Jewish Leaders in Israel Looking for Deal on Shabbat Soccer, Railway Work

'When the arrangement at the Western Wall was cancelled and the conversion law passed, the ultra-Orthodox were frightened. They now try to pick their fights,' coalition source tells Haaretz

Israel's soccer team trains on Novembe 8, 2016 in Shefayim.
Nir Kedar

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the leaders of the ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) Knesset factions have been trying to reach an understanding regarding railway maintenance work and soccer matches on Shabbat, according to coalition sources.

These sources say that several options are being examined regarding railway work, the main one being changes to labor and rest laws, similar to the ones regulating transportation on Saturdays, in which the minister in charge is obliged to take Jewish traditions into consideration as much as possible.

These contacts are taking place ahead of a meeting of Haredi leaders, to be held on Thursday, aimed at planning a campaign to head off any changes to the status quo. A possible withdrawal from the coalition will be considered.

Earlier in the week Netanyahu met with Shas leader Arye Dery and MKs Yaakov Litzman and Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) to discuss these issues. The details remained vague at the end of the meeting, with an announcement that “progress had been made in preventing the desecration of the Sabbath.” MK Gafni said that progress had been made for the first time. “There was understanding without an attempt to plaster things over and shunt responsibility elsewhere.”

Regarding soccer games on Saturdays, the state has to reply to the High Court of Justice in the coming days, ahead of a hearing to be held in two weeks. The law does not permit such games but former Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein and the current one Avichai Mendelblit decided not to enforce the law. The court wants some clarifications on this issue. As with the Western Wall crisis, the issue is being led by national-religious elements, supported by Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel and MK Bezalel Smotrich, who appealed to Netanyahu not to approve playing on Saturdays.

According to the law, a permit for an entire economic sector can only be granted by a ministerial committee, composed of the prime minister and the ministers for labor and religious affairs. Netanyahu convened this committee last week and instructed Deputy Attorney General Raz Nizri to formulate recommendations for enabling soccer games on the Sabbath. During the meeting the assistant cabinet secretary noted that such a permit would affect other sectors. A draft proposal is now being circulated in which an attempt is made to limit the permit to soccer games.

A coalition source told Haaretz that “for the ultra-Orthodox this is bad timing, as we’re dealing with railway work, and they realize it will be difficult to campaign against soccer games at the same time. The ones who brought up the issue were not the ultra-Orthodox but hundreds of soccer players who filed a petition asking to release them from playing on Saturdays. “When the arrangement at the Western Wall was cancelled and the conversion law passed, the ultra-Orthodox were frightened. They now try to pick their fights. My feeling is that Netanyahu and they are joining forces against Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, which is why all the fire is directed at railway work, not at soccer games,” said this source.

An Orthodox source told Haaretz that “Dery is not committed to this issue so he’s not intervening in the soccer matter. He’s also not committed to the railway maintenance issue and the convening of the Orthodox Council of Sages is a headache for him. No one knows how it will end and the rabbis may call for issuing an ultimatum and a threat to withdraw from the coalition, which Dery is very much opposed to, certainly not on the backdrop of negative opinion polls.”

Israel Ezra, a former head of a movement advocating a Jewish and democratic state and one of the petitioners on the soccer issue, told Haaretz that “before one cries out about religious coercion one should know the facts. The players are begging for a day off in order to be with their families but they are presented with two options: either soccer or a Sabbath. Most players in the higher leagues do not wish to play on Saturdays.”