More Israeli Drivers Are Acquiring Permits to Use Bus Lanes

The little-known benefit is awarded to government agencies and providers of vital services, but also to a few unexplained categories of people

A traffic jam in Tel Aviv, March 7, 2017.
David Bachar

Everyone who has been trapped in traffic in Israel is familiar with the impatient driver, the one who steers out of the jam into the lane reserved for public transportation, and disappears into the sunset.

But under the law, a lot of drivers are entitled to do this. The odd part is that the number holding such permits surged 80% last year to 1,954, according to figures obtained by a freedom of information request by nongovernment organizations Hatzlaha and the Movement for Freedom of Information.

After a lengthy waiting period, the two NGOs got the information, but not all of it. The list includes the names of the organizations that received the permits, but not the names of the people who are entitled to drive with them. Moreover, there are a lot of organizations that were removed from the list as “sensitive data,” so the number of permits is bigger than the 1,954 appearing on the list.

The list includes many bodies you would expect to be there – government agencies and companies supplying vital services – but it also includes some unusual ones. The Chief Rabbinate, for instance, has three permits, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate has two, the Druze spiritual leader Sheikh Muwaffak Tarf has one, as does Yeshivat Hakotel in Jerusalem’s Old City.

All of them are entitled to the highest-status permit, which only goes to 310 permit holders, allowing them to travel in public transportation lanes anywhere in the country. Lesser mortals get only regional permits.

Among the holders of the nationwide permits, the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not only holds the most – at 63 – but that number represents a 50% jump from the year before. Asked about the large amount of permits, the PMO said they were not awarded to civilian officials but used by security personnel.

At 16, the Foreign Ministry had the second largest number, followed by the Transportation Ministry (which awards the permits) with seven. Across all the other ministries, there were just 34 in total.

The Knesset had three, one for Speaker Yuli Edelstein, another for opposition leader Isaac Herzog and a third for Albert Sakharovich, director general of the Knesset.

The Electric Corp. has 272 regional permits, double its number in 2016, and it wasn’t clear from the list if they were being used solely by maintenance vehicles. The Israel Police had 308 and Israel Post 17.

In the nongovernment sectors, the biggest permit holders were Yad Sarah, a nationwide supplier of medical equipment on a loan basis, with 50 permits, and the emergency-response organization Zaka with 35. Ezer Mitzion, Ezra Lemarpeh and Refuah v’Simcha – all organizations that support the sick and disabled – got 27, 22 and six, respectively.

Among municipalities, Tel Aviv had the largest number of permits by far – a total of 466, up from 288 the year before. By comparison, Jerusalem had only 154 and Haifa just four.

Some 160 private citizens got permits, too, although most of these were granted because they live or work off a street closed to all but public transportation. All of these individual permit holders, for no obvious reason, live in Jerusalem.