Netanyahu: Train Crisis Was Avoidable, There's a Religious Status Quo in Israel

In thinly veiled criticism of transportation minister, PM says ministers are appointed to prevent crises, not create them. Ultra-Orthodox minister says crisis was intentional and Shabbat desecration is on the rise.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem September 4, 2016.
Ronen Zvulun, Reuters

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday that the political crisis triggered over infrastructure work on Israel's railroads during Shabbat was completely avoidable and "we should never have reached this situation."

Work conducted on Israel's railways during the Sabbath has provoked a political furor over recent days, with ultra-Orthodox parties demanding that all works be halted.

On Friday, Netanyahu ordered the cancellation of all infrastructure work planned by Israel Railways for the weekend, sparking a public outcry and a political falling out between him and Transportation and Road Safety Minister Yisrael Katz, whom the prime minister blames for the crisis.

Speaking at the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday, alongside Katz, Netanyahu said there was a religious "status quo" in Israel which "for years we have respected.

"When we need to do work during Shabbat, it takes place — like it did last week [referring to planned work on Hashalom Station in Tel Aviv]. But when there is no reason, it won't. This is our guiding principle," Netanyahu added.

Over the weekend, Netanyahu accused Katz of deliberately causing a rift with the ultra-Orthodox coalition parties, with a source in his office claiming the work could have been done during weekdays.

In a thinly veiled attack on Katz, Netanyahu said Sunday that "ministers are supposed to resolve crises, not create them. I expect full cooperation from all ministers."

On the sidelines of the meeting, Katz met with Netanyahu's chief of staff, Yoav Horowitz, in a bid to deescalate the tensions between the two. A minister from the Likud told Haaretz that the meeting indicates that the possibility that Katz will be fired has been most likely dropped.

Regarding the work itself, Netanyahu said that "in the past seven years, we have succeeded in doing infrastructure work without redundant crises. When there is no desire to create a crisis, it is easy to avoid it."

Ahead of the cabinet meeting, Health Minister Yaakov Litzman (United Torah Judaism) blasted government work during Shabbat, saying that desecration of the Jewish day of rest was at an all-time high.

Long lines at the Carmel Beach Train Station, Haifa, September 3, 2016.
Rami Shllush

"The train [company] decided to shut down the rail for eight days [for work on the lines]. Why can't [the work slated for Saturday] take place then, together with the other work?" the UTJ chairman asked.

When quizzed about why he objected to work that was considered vital for the rail network, he responded, "That's [the information] they're peddling. All the work can be done together, and there was no reason to desecrate Shabbat. They were looking for it."

Shabbat politics

On Saturday, Netanyahu spoke with a number of Likud ministers and lawmakers, and asked them whether they would support Katz's dismissal. Netanyahu blames Katz for the rift with the Haredi lawmakers, in a bid to destabilize the coalition. 

"This is an initiated and superfluous crisis on the part of Minister Yisrael Katz, which was meant to undermine the relations between the prime minister and the ultra-Orthodox public, or alternatively to harm the prime minister's image among the general public," a statement released Saturday by Netanyahu's bureau said.

According to Netanyahu, the works could have been carried out during the week, not on Shabbat. "Yisrael Katz is holding passengers and soldiers hostage," the statement added.

The decision to halt train services between Tel Aviv and Haifa on Saturday and Sunday also caused public uproar, highlighting political and societal tensions between secular and ultra-Orthodox Israelis. Hundreds attended protests across Israel on Saturday night.

"Netanyahu has had it with Katz," a Likud source told Haaretz. He said the prime minister is determining whether firing Katz for the train crisis would damage the premier politically.

Jonathan Lis contributed to this report.