Political Spat Halts Train Lines Due to Shabbat, Turns Netanyahu Against Transport Minister

PM tries to rally Likud support for firing Minister Katz after blaming him of deliberately causing rift with ultra-Orthodox parties; protests held across Israel over train shutdown due to rail repair on Jewish day of rest.

Prime Minister Netanyahu and Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz on a train to Be'er Sheva, 2012.
Moti Milrod

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accuses Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz of deliberately causing a rift with ultra-Orthodox coalition parties, in a political spat that resulted in the shutting down of country-wide train lines in the beginning of the Israeli workweek.

Some train lines will remain shut until Sunday evening, Israel Railway said on Sunday, leaving an estimated 100,000 commuters stranded. The line between Tel Aviv's Savidor Center Station and Haifa's Hof Carmel Station will only resume at 7:00 P.M. on Sunday, prompting fears of traffic chaos in Tel Aviv. Other train lines will resume earlier.

Netanyahu on Saturday spoke with a number of Likud ministers and lawmakers and asked them whether they would support firing Katz. Netanyahu blames Katz for the rift with the ultra-Orthodox in 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 on Saturday by Netanyahu's bureau said.

A long line of people waiting for a bus in Haifa after train lines were halted due to political pressure over rail repair on Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest, September 3, 2016.
Rami Shllush

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

Work conducted on the railways during Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest, has provoked a political crisis over the past few days, with the ultra-Orthodox parties demanding that all work be halted. On Friday, Netanyahu ordered the cancellation of all infrastructure work planned by Israel Railways for the weekend and undertook to resolve the issue within 72 hours. The PM, together with Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, also instructed the Defense Ministry to operate buses to shuttle soldiers from out-of-order train stations to their bases.

The decision to halt the train lines 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 source in Likud told Haaretz. He said the prime minister is attempting to determine whether firing Katz for the train crisis would harm him politically.

Social Affairs Minister Haim Katz has publically announced he stands by the transportation minister, as is Deputy Housing Minister Jackie Levy. As of Saturday evening, no Likud minister or lawmaker has publically declared support for Netanyahu in his campaign against Katz.

Work conducted on the railways during the Jewish Sabbath has provoked a political crisis over the past few days.
Rami Shllush

Earlier on Saturday Haim Katz called on Netanyahu "not to even consider" firing the transportation minister. He called on Netanyahu "to sit down and talk in order to bring the crisis to and end and to solve the problem with the ultra-Orthodox parties." Katz added that he is in favor of keeping the status quo regarding employing workers on Shabbat, and that he intends to keep using his authority on the matter subject to the law.  

MK Oren Hazan (Likud) also came out in Katz's defense. "Enough with the denunciations of Yisrael Katz. He isn't the enemy," Hazan appealed to Netanyahu. "A continuation of the internal fights will harm the Likud, harm you and lead to elections and the end of your term as prime minister." Hazan added: "How do you, sir, expect the public to trust us when we come across as always fighting among ourselves."

Netanyahu on Friday spoke with leaders of the ultra-Orthodox parties. MK Moshe Gafni (UTJ) said Katz wasn't truthful and demanded Netanyahu fire him. Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, who heads UTJ, did not join Gafni's demand, but said that his spiritual leader, Rabbi Yaakov Aryeh Alter of Gur, only instructed him to leave the government if the Shabbat is desecrated.

Meretz petitions High Court

Meanwhile, Meretz chairwoman Zehava Galon petitioned the High Court of Justice on Saturday in a bid to cancel the decision to stop work on the train's infrastructure on Saturdays.

"The court must put an end to the prime minister's unbridled rampage at the expense of thousands of passengers," Galon said. "The decision to stop the train infrastructure work a moment before Shabbat began was made without authority, in contrast to the Government Companies Law and in contrast to the legally issued work permits to work on Shabbat."

"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.   

Coalition chairman David Bitan (Likud) said on Saturday that "there's a crisis of trust between the prime minister and the transportation minister. It will be difficult to reverse the situation, but we must try to do so through talks for the sake of the Likud and the government." He added that "we expect Likud ministers work together with the prime minister."

MK Amir Ohana (Likud) attacked the Haredi parties. “’Live and let live’ is a foreign concept to the ultra-Orthodox parties, which over and over again demand veto power – and we say ‘amen,’” he told an audience in Be’er Sheva on Saturday. Suggesting that the ultra-Orthodox influence in the coalition be diluted through an expanded coalition, he said that any party that fails to join a national unity government shouldn’t complain about the ultra-Orthodox veto on matters of religion and state.