Netanyahu Announces End to Coalition Crisis Over Shabbat Work Dispute

Prime Minister's Office says ministers agreed that legislation will be advanced to preserve the status quo on Shabbat observance

Yaakov Litzman, Israel's health minister who resigned, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Interior Minister Arye Dery
Olivier Fitoussi

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on Sunday evening that the crisis in his coalition due to disputes with his two ultra-Orthodox coalition partners over work on Shabbat has ended.

Earlier on Sunday, Health Minister Yaakov Litzman handed in his resignation due to his disagreement with railroad maintenance scheduled to take place on Shabbat. Meanwhile, the chairman of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party and Interior Minister Arye Dery was absent from Sunday's cabinet meeting in protest over a bill that would allow some supermarkets to open on Shabbat.

Netanyahu made his announcement following a meeting with Dery, the outgoing Litzman and Knesset Finance Committee Chairman Moshe Gafni of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party.

According to the Prime Minister's Office, the four politicians decided that Dery's bill, permitting the interior minister to strike down future municipal bylaws on the opening of businesses on Shabbat, will be advanced. The legislation will not apply to Tel Aviv – the bill will not apply retroactively, and Tel Aviv already has such a bylaw.

In addition, a new bill will be drafted to allow Litzman to serve as deputy health minister with the administrative authority of a minister.

"The coalition is strong and stable," Netanyahu said. "We will continue to work together for the citizens of Israel."

At the conclusion of the meeting at the Prime Minister's Office, Dery said: "We managed to come to understandings on the issue of the 'Grocery Store Bill' and all of the other issues, through which we will maintain the status quo throughout the country. Shabbat is very important to us. This is a Jewish state and most of the citizens of Israel want to have a sense of Shabbat in the streets and in the cities. In recent days, we have held talks and meetings to ensure that the status quo is maintained without compulsion and without wars among the Jews."

For his part, the outgoing health minister made it clear that he would not consent to the passage of any law on his appointment as deputy health minister until the legislation on keeping the Shabbat status quo is passed.

When Netanyahu formed his current government coalition in 2015, Litzman was appointed deputy health minister, with the job of health minister technically in the hands of the prime minister himself. It was one of several cabinet portfolios that he held at the time. Litzman's United Torah Judaism party had opposed having its members hold ministerial positions over concerns about partnering with the state and being forced to vote on issues that go against halakha, or Jewish religious law.

In August of 2015, acting on a petition filed by the opposition Yesh Atid party, the High Court of Justice ruled that Litzman could not continue as deputy minister under the circumstances and would have to decide within 60 days whether to assume the position of minister or resign from the Health Ministry. Although no UTJ member had every held a full ministerial position, the party opted to have Litzman assume the health minister's post, and he was appointed in September of 2015.

Reacting on Sunday to the news that Litzman would again revert to running the Health Ministry as deputy minister, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid said the agreement with the ultra-Orthodox parties involved "shady deals," and added: "The High Court of Justice has already ruled that there is no such thing as deputy minister with the job of minister, but out of panic and fear of the ultra-Orthodox parties, Netanyahu is continuing to bend the law."