Train Chaos Is Only the First Stop in ultra-Orthodox Parties' Battle for Shabbat

A special Knesset panel is examining businesses closing on Shabbat, and it is thought the prime minister will attempt to keep ultra-Orthodox parties onside again.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Interior Minister Arye Dery, February 2016.
Marc Israel Sellem

The ultra-Orthodox parties have been making Shabbat work a top priority recently. The surrender by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the issue of railway maintenance work constitutes a major victory for them, after the premier barred the work this weekend, which in turn caused major train service disruptions on Saturday night and Sunday.

Netanyahu, who is working diligently to strengthen his political base as prime minister and needs the ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi) parties for this purpose, will not let Shabbat work on the railroads derail his efforts to achieve his goal — even at the cost of harming the civilians and soldiers who rely on the train service.

But from the viewpoint of the leaders of the Haredi parties in the coalition — Arye Dery of Shas, and Yaakov Litzman and Moshe Gafni of United Torah Judaism — things are completely different. The Israel Railways issue is just the coming attraction for the even bigger battle ahead over whether businesses should be allowed to remain open on Shabbat.

A special committee headed by Eli Gruner, the director general of the Prime Minister’s Office, was recently convened to consider the issue of businesses staying open in Tel Aviv on the Sabbath. The panel includes the directors general of the justice, religious services and economy and industry ministries. The panel’s decisions will apply countrywide.

It appears the committee will propose three alternatives: approving a Tel Aviv municipal bylaw that would permit about 160 businesses in the city to open on Shabbat; reducing the number of businesses open on the Sabbath by about 20 percent; or allowing only convenience stores and shopping centers to remain open (but barring stores inside the city, including small kiosk shops, from opening).

The recommendations require cabinet approval, and Shas and United Torah Judaism have already expressed their opposition to all three options.

One cannot rule out the prospect that the authority regarding the opening of businesses on Shabbat will be returned to the leader of Shas — Interior Minister Arye Dery. It was transferred to the full cabinet after then-Interior Minister Silvan Shalom refused to deal with the issue, because he had received a donation from the owner of a Tel Aviv grocery store.

Due to Netanyahu’s desire to satisfy the ultra-Orthodox parties, some are predicting that he will show flexibility in favor of these parties with respect to operating businesses on Shabbat. The prime minister needs the Haredim in his current coalition government, and in the one after that (since Netanyahu doesn’t believe he has a replacement to head up a future government). That’s even though the ultra-Orthodox parties are not expected to leave the government over the Shabbat issue just prior to a debate on the next budget, from which they are looking for major government support for their institutions.

Netanyahu has been careful not to sour his excellent relations with Dery, Litzman and Gafni — ties that look particularly good in comparison to his cooler relationship with Education Minister (and Habayit Hayehudi Chairman) Naftali Bennett. In that context, in advance of the formation of the current government, the prime minister scrapped the budget cuts to the Haredim that had been enacted by the previous finance minister, Yair Lapid.

Netanyahu went further and added hundreds of millions of shekels in funding for ultra-Orthodox religious, educational and cultural institutions. He paved the way for legislation to bypass a high court ruling so that income-guaranteed support could be restored to married yeshiva students; to repeal legislation forcing more yeshiva students to serve in the army; and eliminate the requirement that ultra-Orthodox schools teach core curriculum subjects in order to be entitled to government funding.

In addition to surrendering on the issue of Shabbat, Netanyahu is also making sure current events serve his interests in his political battle against Likud colleague and Transportation and Road Safety Minister Yisrael Katz.

From his own standpoint, Netanyahu has managed to humiliate Katz twice recently: First, after he forced Katz, as chairman of the Likud secretariat, to quickly scrap decisions that circumscribed Netanyahu’s authority as party head; and second when Katz announced the establishment of a ministerial committee to be headed by Netanyahu to combat traffic accidents. Ultimately, the Prime Minister’s Office relegated the issue to a committee of ministry directors general.

Over the weekend, Netanyahu had another attempt at humiliating Katz when he announced he was considering firing the transportation minister, who had recently expressed a desire to be prime minister himself one day.

But the turn of events may to some extent serve to strengthen Katz, with the entire Shabbat work issue becoming Netanyahu’s responsibility. Katz, on the other hand, is being portrayed as the one who did not surrender to the ultra-Orthodox.