Netanyahu Freezes Saturday Train Infrastructure Works Amid Pressure From Haredim

Prime Minister accuses Transportation Minister Israel Katz of attempting to foment a coalition crisis with the ultra-Orthodox parties by giving go-ahead to Sabbath work.

Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz at a construction site for the Tel Aviv Light Rail, August 2016.
Moti Milrod

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered the cancellation of all infrastructure work planned by Israel Railways for this weekend on Friday, shortly before the start of the Sabbath.

Sabbath work conducted by the railways has provoked a political crisis over the past few days, with the ultra-Orthodox parties demanding that all work be halted. Netanyahu undertook to resolve the issue within 72 hours.

He decided to halt the work this weekend after receiving conflicting reports from the Transportation Ministry regarding which work is critical and must be undertaken on the Sabbath.

The issue has created a deep crisis of trust between Netanyahu and Transport Minister Israel Katz.

Netanyahu was blisteringly critical of Katz in a statement issued by his bureau on Friday, accusing him of attempting to foment "an unnecessary crisis with the ultra-Orthodox in order to weaken the government."

Katz's argument that it was imperative to do the work on the Sabbath in order to avoid disruptions of traffic was undermined by the fact that Katz intends halting all railway traffic for eight days in the near future, including on weekdays, the statement said.

"Apparently Katz is attempting to gain points with the wider public, which is not familiar with the details, by means of creating a crisis with the Haredim," the statement said.

In a meeting with leaders of the religious parties a month ago, Katz promised that no work would be done on the Sabbath. Shortly after, he surprised the religious parties by ordering work on dozens of projects on the Sabbath.

He explained that it was imperative to do the work on the Sabbath, rather than on weekdays, to prevent disruptions to traffic.

Israel Railways CEO Boaz Zafrir announced on Wednesday that 17 of the 20 infrastructure projects could be postponed, but the PM's bureau and the ultra-Orthodox parties were astounded to hear on Friday that Katz had given the go-ahead for work on all 20 projects this weekend.

Prior to Netanyahu's order on Friday to cancel all work this weekend, the PM's bureau exerted pressure on the Labor Ministry to cancel the 20 work permits issued to Israel Railways, authorizing it to conduct essential infrastructure work on the Sabbath.

Netanyahu's agreement on Thursday to cancel 17 of the work projects created a legal problem, because the prime minister does not have the authority to order a government department to refrain from doing work.

In addition to attempting to get the permits revoked, Netanyahu also contacted the heads of the ultra-Orthodox parties on Friday, requesting that they allow the three remaining projects to go ahead as planned this Saturday.

The permits that the PM's Bureau wants cancelled were all issued legally. Israel Railways is obliged to do the work, which is regarded as critical infrastructural work that could harm the public good if not done.

Israel Railways has a legal opinion according to which it is unable to suspend infrastructure work without a legal basis, among other reasons because it has issued bonds and is therefore bound by securities laws.

The government has only two ways of preventing the work from going ahead: A cabinet decision under clause 4a of the law governing state companies or the revocation of the permits by the body that issued them.

For that reason, the PM's bureau approached Labor Minister Haim Katz, who is abroad on a private visit, to cancel the permits.