Israel's High Court: Netanyahu Does Not Have Authority to Stop Shabbat Work

State Prosecutor urged court to reject petition by left-wing party, said ruling was moot at this point since it pertained only to this past Shabbat's Israel Railways works.

An Israel Railway train, 2014.
Eyal Toueg

Israel's High Court has issued an injunction which renders obsolete Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's bid to halt infrastructure work on Israel's railways during Shabbat, in what has become a flashpoint political issue in recent days.

The injunction, by Justice Anat Baron, was given in response to a petition by left-wing Meretz leader Zehava Galon against Netanyahu's cancelation of work on the nation's railways this past Saturday

Netanyahu referred to the High Court ruling during a press conference in the Netherlands on Tuesday.

"I respect the High Court of Justice's decisions," Netanyahu said. "I think they clarify the order of things. The minister responsible is the social affairs minister and he will decide, according to the law, which works are fundamental and these will be carried out – if need be also on Shabbat.

"Works that aren’t fundamental will be carried out on weekdays. That's the right order, and I think that this is the correct thing and puts an end to this affair. All the citizens of Israel, both secular and ultra-Orthodox, need to conduct themselves according to this ruling and this decision," the prime minister added.

In response to the court's ruling, Galon said that "This is a great victory. The High Court of Justice didn’t accept the prosecution's brazen claim that this is a 'theoretical issue,' and is demanding to convene a hearing as soon as possible, in order to receive explanations about the prime minister's patently illegal conduct."

The State Prosecutor's Office said the issue was now moot because work had been halted only this past weekend, and that Israel Railways still had a permit to put employees to work on Shabbat if necessary, through the end of September. Beforehand, the government urged Israel's High Court of Justice on Tuesday to reject the petition.

Any amendments to these permits would require the approval of Labor Minister Haim Katz, the prosecution said.

"In light of events in recent days, the matter has been examined with a view to the future by the relevant authorities, and work meetings on the matter are expected [to be held], including a meeting set for today with relevant bodies," the prosecutor's response added.

Under pressure from ultra-Orthodox coalition partners, Netanyahu cancelled railway work that had been scheduled for last Shabbat, sparking nationwide protests.

The 24-hour delay in work on vital infrastructure upgrades led to a system shutdown at the start of the Israeli work week on Sunday, which stranded thousands of commuters.

Galon petitioned the court on Saturday to try and overrule Netanyahu's decision before the work could be stopped. In her petition, Galon urged the court to "put an end to the prime minister's unbridled rampage at the expense of thousands of passengers."

"The prime minister's capitulation to the demands of the ultra-Orthodox parties and rabbis in Israel, for the sake of preserving the coalition that he built, which produced the 'order' to the railway [company], is nothing but the elimination of the rule of law and the principles of democracy in the State of Israel," the petition said.