Analysis

Battle for Shabbat in Tel Aviv: Netanyahu Trapped Between Cabinet and High Court

The cabinet is set to discuss whether businesses can open on Shabbat and holidays, but the prime minister is in somewhat of a bind.

A 24/7 supermarket in Tel Aviv.
Tomer Appelbaum

The cabinet is set to discuss Sunday whether businesses can open on Shabbat and holidays, with the focus being on whether small grocery stores and kiosks in Tel Aviv can open on Friday nights and Saturdays.

The High Court of Justice is due to rule on that particular issue in two weeks’ time, but the cabinet decision will also have implications for most other cities, especially Jerusalem.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is in something of a bind over the issue. Some of his governing coalition partners – the ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi) parties and Habayit Hayehudi – oppose any changes to the religious status quo, which for decades has held that “places of entertainment” in Jewish cities were allowed to open on Shabbat, but not stores or other businesses.

The High Court has asked the government to determine its policy on the matter by January 23, ahead of a petition it is hearing from small business owners in Tel Aviv.

It is possible that if the cabinet presents the court with its complete opposition to opening such businesses on Shabbat, the court will order the government to be more lenient on the issue.

The Prime Minister’s Office discussed the matter with the two Haredi parties in the coalition, Shas and United Torah Judaism, over the weekend.

The issue has been on the agenda for about four years, after a group of grocery store owners in Tel Aviv petitioned the High Court. They claimed that store chains such as AM:PM and Tiv Ta’am had opened branches in the city on Saturdays while their smaller competitors were not interested, or able, to work seven days a week, causing them serious financial harm.

Local Tel Aviv bylaws prevent businesses from opening on Shabbat (from just before sundown Friday to after sunset on Saturday), but in many cases the city did not enforce these restrictions. Even when they did enforce the law, the fines were too low to deter store owners because their revenues on the Sabbath were so much higher than on weekdays.

In response to business owners turning to the courts, the Tel Aviv Municipality amended its own bylaws. However, these changes require the approval of the interior minister and recent ministers have avoided approving them, including present Interior Minister Arye Dery (who also heads the Shas party).

In December 2015, a panel of directors general from a number of government ministries were appointed to examine the issue, headed by PMO Director General Eli Groner.

Five months ago, the committee heard three possible solutions: To allow some 200 businesses to open in Tel Aviv on Shabbat; to let 165 businesses open, in addition to businesses in three specific areas – the Tel Aviv and Jaffa ports, and Hatachana (the old railway station); or for the cabinet to decide not to allow any businesses to open on Shabbat except for convenience stores in places such as gas stations and shopping malls outside of cities.

Deputy Attorney General Erez Kaminetz opposed the third solution, a full ban, saying he could not defend such a decision in the High Court. But the ultra-Orthodox parties insisted that the third possibility still being presented to the cabinet. As a result, no final summary and recommendations have been presented to the cabinet as yet, and it is only the court-imposed deadline that has brought the issue to a head.

During discussions within the coalition on the matter, Tourism Minister Yariv Levin (Likud) – who is also the minister responsible for contact between the government and the Knesset – warned that Haredi opposition to any businesses opening on Shabbat was playing right into the hands of Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid.

In light of all these problems, it is possible that the cabinet will not reach any practical decision today, and by doing so leave it for the High Court to decide, said coalition sources.

If the court decides, for example, to allow a certain number of businesses to open, this will obligate the government – but the religious parties can still tell their voters the decision was made despite their strong opposition. Nevertheless, politicians are always very wary of allowing the courts to make policy for them.