After Train Work Halted Due to Shabbat, Netanyahu, Lieberman Announce Shuttles for Soldiers

Up to 250,000 commuters possibly stranded after Netanyahu canceled all infrastructure work planned by Israel Railways for the weekend following political pressure.

FILE PHOTO: Israeli soldiers wait at Tel Aviv train station.
Tomer Appelbaum

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman announced early Saturday that shuttles would be available for Israel Defense Force soldiers commuting to and from train stations that are out of order due to delays in planned infrastructure work in wake of political tensions.

Work conducted by the railways during the Jewish Shabbat has provoked a political crisis over the past few days, with the ultra-Orthodox parties demanding that all work be halted.

FILE PHOTO: Israeli soldiers wait at Tel Aviv train station.
Tomer Appelbaum

On Friday, Netanyahu ordered the cancellation of all infrastructure work planned by Israel Railways for this weekend and undertook to resolve the issue within 72 hours.

The result is that the lines linking Tel Aviv and Haifa and their intermediary stations will be nonoperational Saturday evening and Sunday morning, leaving roughly 250,000 Israelis without the possibility to commute.

Netanyahu and Lieberman at the Knesset on May 30, 2016.
Ronen Zvulun/Reuters

According to the joint announcement by Netanyahu and Lieberman, IDF soldiers will be able to arrive as planned to the nonoperational stations on Saturday evening and Sunday morning, where shuttles will take them to their bases.

All train schedules will return to normal on 7pm Sunday. Until then, the Nahariyah-Tel Aviv line will be functional only north of Binyamina, some 60km nother of Tel Aviv. The Tel Aviv-Modi'in will resume Sunday morning at 5am.

Political tensions

The prime minister, a statement from his office said Friday, 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 Shabbat.

Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Yoav Davidovich

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 Shabbat 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.

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

He explained that it was imperative to do the work on the Shabbat, 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.

FILE PHOTO: Israeli soldier buys ticket at Tel Aviv train station.
Tomer Appelbaum

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 Shabbat.

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.