Ultra-Orthodox Parties Drop Demand to Fire Minister Over Sabbath Construction Row

Yisrael Katz says the work on a Tel Aviv train station was absolutely necessary, adhered to Jewish law and had broad public support.

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

Israel’s ultra-Orthodox parties said Sunday night that the crisis over the railway construction work that took place in Tel Aviv on Shabbat was being resolved, after calming messages from the Prime Minister’s Office, along with a promise from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu regarding Shabbat work by government agencies in the future.

“The prime minister promised that any government work scheduled to be done on Shabbat will go through a committee of ministry directors general,” Shas Chairman Arye Dery told Haaretz on Sunday. “We will make sure there are clear procedures, and as far as we’re concerned that’s the test for the future.”

After the heads of Shas and United Torah Judaism expressed a “pained protest” over work being done on the Hashalom Train Station in Tel Aviv on Shabbat, and after all the ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi) newspapers scathingly criticized Transportation and Road Safety Minister Yisrael Katz, it seems both parties are ready to go back to normal.

Benjamin Netanyahu and Arye Dery in the Knesset in 2015.
Ronen Zvulun/Reuters

According to Dery, “With regard to Katz, there was no demand that he be dismissed. We do not appoint or fire ministers. There’s no personal issue here, it’s the principle. If the prime minister says he’s on top of the situation, that’s acceptable to us,” he added.

Sources in UTJ, who on Saturday night called on Netanyahu to fire Katz, will apparently suffice with an urgent meeting with the prime minister that will take place tomorrow as part of the usual weekly meeting of the coalition faction heads.

People in the ultra-Orthodox parties say it was a mistake to demand Katz’s dismissal, but added that his relationship with the Haredi parties had suffered a crisis of confidence that will make it difficult for him to realize his dream of winning the Likud leadership in the future.

Health Minister Yakov Litzman of the Hassidic Agudat Yisrael faction and MK Moshe Gafni of the Degel Hatorah faction.
Olivier Fitoussi

The heads of Shas and UTJ will utilize the meeting with the premier to raise an issue that, from their perspective, is even more important in determining the character of Shabbat: the question of who has the authority to allow businesses to open on Shabbat.

Katz projected a business-as-usual attitude Sunday, after the long-scheduled work on Hashalom station took place over the weekend.

The ultra-Orthodox lawmakers were angered that Katz had allegedly deceived them by saying he would only sanction work on Shabbat that was necessary for saving lives — the stipulation in Jewish law.

“The prime minister took the issue on himself,” Katz said on the compromise that permitted extensive work, and the closure of the southbound lane of the Ayalon Highway near the station for 28 hours. “It’s totally legitimate and certainly required, and the result in the end was very similar to the decision made at the beginning.”

Late Thursday night, the Prime Minister’s Office chief of staff, Yoav Horowitz, gave Israel Railways CEO Boaz Tzafrir the green light for 12 of the 16 projects he wanted to proceed with during Shabbat. The work required 100 more workers than the 200 the railway company usually employs on Shabbat.

Horowitz told Tzafrir that the permit for the work had the consent of leaders of ultra-Orthodox parties (Yaakov Litzman, Moshe Gafni, and Dery). The agreement included improvements to the railway and the installation of a new signal system. 

Katz said he had not been not informed in advance of Israel Railways’ request for Shabbat work permits from the Economy Ministry, and in any case he did not have the authority to issue or cancel such permits.

Still, Katz has been careful not to criticize the Haredi MKs and has declared that Shabbat observance is important to him.