Netanyahu Drops Plan to Fire Powerful Party Rival Over Sabbath Train Debacle

Firing Transport Minister Yisrael Katz could destabilize the government and threaten the two-year budget, a senior Likud source says. Now the focus is on Netanyahu, and the coming Shabbat.

Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Yoav Davidovich

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will not dismiss Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz over the Shabbat railway work because he wants to make sure the budget passes, a senior Likud official involved in the consultations on the issue said.

By Sunday afternoon the crisis between Netanyahu and Katz had ended. While the two are not talking to each other, Katz met with the prime minister’s chief of staff Yoav Horowitz for a few minutes; it was described as a businesslike meeting that dealt with how to continue working from here on in. Katz won’t speak to the media and has instructed associates not to say anything else about the issue.

On Friday, Netanyahu, under pressure from the ultra-Orthodox parties in his coalition, ordered the cancellation of all infrastructure work planned by Israel Railways for the weekend, which compelled the company to halt train services. This sparked a public outcry, highlighting political and societal tensions between secular and ultra-Orthodox Israelis.

It also dramatically escalated the political rift between Netanyahu and Katz, which broke out a few weeks ago when Katz, head of the Likud Secretariat, tried and failed to rein in Netanyahu’s great power in the party.

Over Shabbat, Katz worked to build a camp of supporters in the Likud to keep Netanyahu from firing him. The most senior person to rally to his side was Social Affairs Minister Haim Katz, who, although he is abroad, issued a statement calling for the transportation minister not to be fired. Haim Katz also spoke with senior Likud members. Others who support Katz include Likud MKs Jackie Levy, Nava Boker, and Oren Hazan. Those opposing Katz, included MK David Amsalem, a former associate who parted ways with Yisrael Katz, leaving bad blood between them.

On Saturday night the feeling was that Netanyahu would indeed fire Katz, or at least move him to a different portfolio. Netanyahu sounded very angry during the consultations that night. But in the end two arguments persuaded Netanyahu to back off. One was the upcoming budget vote. A senior Likud official said that dumping a senior minister like Katz after former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon was given the boot could lead to agitation that could threaten passage of the two-year budget, which is Netanyahu’s political insurance policy.

The second thing that Netanyahu understands is that his decision to stop the Shabbat work on the railways had set public opinion against him, and that it was best to just wrap up the crisis as quickly as possible without fanning the flames by firing a minister.

Now the focus is on the coming Shabbat. The Social Affairs Ministry is reexamining all the permits given to the Transportation Ministry for Shabbat work to see if they meet the legal criteria for such work. The results will be given to the Prime Minister’s Office, where Netanyahu apparently would like to divorce himself from the issue and leave Yisrael Katz to deal with it.