Israel's Transportation Minister Lacked Authority to Stop Bridge Work on Saturday

Knesset to convene in special session on decision to halt Shabbat construction of Ayalon bridge

The Ayalon Bridge
\ Moti Milrod

The Transportation Ministry’s decision on Wednesday to bar work on a pedestrian bridge in Tel Aviv from being done on Shabbat violated a ruling issued by its own legal advisor a year ago, that the authorities were not entitled to interfere in government companies’ decisions to do infrastructure work on Shabbat. An official in the Prime Minister’s Office called the decision unreasonable. 

Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz announced he was freezing plans to close Tel Aviv’s main traffic artery, the Ayalon Highway, for six Saturdays in order to build a pedestrian bridge. The decision was made after pressure from the governing coalition’s religious members, who oppose working on the Sabbath.

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Ironically, however, Katz was the very person who asked legal advisor Mali Sitton to issue a ruling to legitimize another Shabbat construction case last year, hoping it would help him repulse pressure from the ultra-Orthodox parties to bar work on the railroad on Shabbat. 

The Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality announced Tuesday that the new Yehudit Bridge over the Ayalon would be built over six weekends, scheduled over several months. The first highway closure was scheduled for August 31. 

But on Wednesday, Katz said the municipality’s announcement was “outrageous and unnecessary” and ordered the city to submit an alternative plan. He said the manner of construction chosen could be “disproportionately onerous for the public over the weekends.”

His decision followed a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday from ultra-Orthodox MK Yinon Azulai (Shas) complaining that Tel Aviv’s plan was a gross violation of the coalition agreement. Azulai added that it was “unthinkable that the sacred Sabbath will be trampled over in the state of the Jewish people of all places.”

>> Under ultra-Orthodox pressure, Israel freezes construction of Tel Aviv Bridge on Shabbat

In the legal opinion she issued last year, Sitton wrote that Article 4 of the Government Companies Law requires government companies to operate according to the same business considerations used by private companies, unless the government has decided that other considerations should be used and that the decision in question had been approved by the Knesset Finance Committee.

“No party has the authority to order the company to operate according to considerations other than business considerations,” Sitton wrote. The minister isn’t permitted to order the company not to work on Shabbat, she wrote.

Though her ruling dealt with Israel Railways, it would also apply to Netivei Ayalon, the company building the pedestrian bridge, since both are wholly owned by the state.

In light of this contradiction, Haaretz asked Katz’s spokesman by what authority he ordered work on the pedestrian bridge stopped on Shabbat. No answer has yet been received.

Tel Aviv-Jaffa mayor Ron Huldai was outraged by Katz’s decision, saying that “closing the Ayaon Highway in the middle of the week will create a transportation catastrophe for the public.”

“This government has lost all sense of shame,” he added

After Katz nixed the Saturday construction plans, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid said on Twitter that “the ultra-Orthodox, who are the ones who really control the coalition, ordered Netanyahu to suspend the works.”

“Netanyahu of course obeyed and suspended [the works], and we will be the ones stuck in horrible traffic jams again,” he said, presumably referring to the likely outcome of shuttering Tel Aviv’s central highway on weekdays and diverting traffic to the city streets.

Following Katz’s announcement, the Meretz party gathered enough signatures on a petition for the Knesset to convene in special session during the summer recess to debate the issue. 

Meretz chairwoman Tamar Zandberg said that “in a liberal democratic country in 2018, infrastructure works should be done according to needs and in the manner that causes the least inconvenience, not based on the unenlightened whims of politicians who serve their rabbis rather than the public.”

“Katz’s intolerable surrender to the ultra-Orthodox proves how far this government is distancing Israel from a liberal democracy,” Zandberg said.

The ultra-Orthodox parties praised Katz’s decision. 

Katz “showed a sense of public responsibility and prevented needless harm to the status quo and the tradition of Israel,” said Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman of the ultra-Orthodox party United Torah Judaism. “Keeping the Sabbath as the national day of rest has been a supreme value for generations. Canceling the work on Saturday at the Yehudit Bridge is a moral and blessed step that speaks to sound judgment, rather than provoking the religious and traditional population, which make up the majority of people in Israel.”

A UTJ source said the ultra-Orthodox parties consider Katz’s decision final, and “if something changes, we’ll consider our steps.” But at this stage, he added, the party doesn’t intend to cause a coalition crisis over the issue.