Coalition Crisis: Netanyahu to Introduce New Legislation to Placate ultra-Orthodox

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, at the opening of the Knesset winter session, October 23, 2017.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, at the opening of the Knesset winter session, October 23, 2017.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is aiming to have two new pieces of legislation approved on Sunday in the hope of preventing a coalition crisis that was sparked after Israel’s ultra-Orthodox health minister announced his resignation due to a dispute over railroad maintenance on Shabbat.

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One of the bills that Netanyahu will submit to the Ministerial Committee for Legislation for approval Sunday will allow the Interior Ministry to repeal municipal bylaws, thus giving it the power to order the closure of supermarkets on Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest.

The matter has become a point of friction between the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, of which Health Minister Yaakov Litzman is chairman, and the government. 

The issue is a contentious one and will encounter opposition from other coalition parties, including Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman's Yisrael Beiteinu party, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon's Kulanu party and a number of Likud lawmakers.

>> Why the political crisis? Railway work on Shabbat has been routine for years >>

The second proposal that Netanyahu is seeking to have approved on Sunday is an amendment to the law regarding the hours of work and rest. As part of the existing law, work permits on Shabbat are allowed for protecting the state, its economy, and its public services.

According to the proposed amendment, the labor minister will have to take into account the “welfare of the worker, the tradition of Israel, the existence of an alternative that does not require employment on days of weekly rest and the extent of damage to the public space.”

Even though the proposed amendment to the law was distributed last week and the mandatory 21-day period for public comments has not yet passed, Netanyahu wants the law passed on Sunday. The legislation is expected to pass as it does not necessitate the cessation of work on the Jewish day of rest, only consideration of it.

Netanyahu held talks with leaders of the coalition parties, including United Torah Judaism, on Friday. Complicating matters, the ultra-Orthodox party said that the Council of Torah Sages did not accept Litzman's decision to resign, and that Litzman's resignation does not mean that they are withdrawing from their commitment to the coalition.

Nonetheless, Netanyahu is trying to prevent a scenario in which Litzman's resignation becomes the first step that will lead the ultra-Orthodox to radicalize their positions on other issues related to religion and state.

A source close to Litzman told Haaretz he was “not interested in resigning or in leaving the coalition. He’d rather work to secure more achievements” on issues like mandatory army conscription, “but he has no choice. The rabbi instructed him [to quit] and he has to obey.”

Litzman reportedly informed Netanyahu of his decision on Friday after consulting with the rabbinical leader of the Gur Hasidic sect, who are said to have urged Litzman not to compromise in allowing the government to employ Jews on Shabbat.

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