Coalition Crisis

Ultra-Orthodox Minister to Quit Over Shabbat Work Dispute

Maintenance and construction work carried out on Israel's railways on the Sabbath was called 'a severe blow to the sanctity of Shabbat' by Health Minister Yaakov Litzman

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman (right), Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon (center) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attend an event in Ashdod, August 13, 2017.
Ilan Assayag

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman notified Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday of his intention to resign due to a dispute over railroad maintenance on Shabbat.

Litzman, who is also chairman of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, made his announcement following two meetings with the rabbinical leader of the Gur Hasidic sect. He urged Litzman not to compromise in allowing the government to employ Jews on Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest.

>> Why the political crisis? Railway work on Shabbat has been routine for years <<

Meanwhile, Social Affairs Minister Haim Katz said that after looking into the matter, he approved only the most critical work, which could endanger lives if left unfinished, to be completed on Shabbat.

Katz envoked a Jewish legal loophole, known as Pikuach Nefesh, that permits breaking religious law, including the observance of Shabbat, in order to save a life.

The social affairs minister added that this served as a compromise, and showed sensitivity to the Orthodox Jewish public while also ensuring that public transportation continues to run as planned when the week begins on Sunday.

A source close to Litzman told Haaretz he was “not interested in resigning or in leaving the coalition. He’d rather work to secure more achievements” on issues like mandatory army conscription, “but he has no choice. The rabbi instructed him [to quit] and he has to obey.”

Litzman is set to officially resign on Sunday. The implications of his decision for the governing coalition remain unclear.

The political crisis within the coalition was sparked earlier this week after Israel Railways planned essential work on the rail system around the country for the upcoming Shabbat. The company warned that if the work was not carried out, it would cause a complete shutdown of the country's train network the following week.

Netanyahu and ultra-Orthodox coalition representatives met on Wednesday in an effort to come up with a solution, but they were unable to resolve the matter.

On Thursday, it seemed a deal could be struck with Israel Railways, which would allow only the most crucial work to be done on Shabbat. However, moving this kind of work to weekdays would seriously disrupt railway operations.

The compromise included reducing the number of locations where maintenance work would be performed on Shabbat from 12 to four. Deliberations continued into Thursday night, but the deal collapsed on Friday morning.

Last Friday, Litzman threatened to resign if the railway maintenance work took place.

United Torah Judaism has yet to decide how to act after Litzman informed Netanyahu of his plans, and at this stage the party is remaining completely silent on the matter.  But it seems that leaving the government is not the preferred option for any of the party’s other Knesset members.

Litzman's actions, seemingly taken without consultation with the party leadership, is extremely unusual in a party where decisions are always made from above and MKs are expected to toe the line.

Sources within the party told Haaretz they were furious about Litzman’s decision, which was made without consulting the rest of the party’s MKs. “What happened this Shabbat? What has changed,” wondered a member of the Degel Hatorah party faction.

“There are problems, that’s true, but there are processes and we are trying to reach solutions. What does it mean that he made a decision alone? The Council of Torah Sages only recently made a decision that we are staying in the coalition and working to change the law.

"Litzman is not fighting for the law, but demanding a break in work on Shabbat. This contradicts the decision of the Council of Torah Sages,” the source added.

Litzman may have painted the rest of his party’s MKs into a corner from which they will find it difficult to extricate themselves, but one of the party’s MKs told Haaretz he thinks they will be able to do so.

Yesh Atid Chairman “Yair Lapid and his colleagues are taking advantage of us. [Litzman] should not have been allowed to become a minister. As soon as he took office he realized he made a mistake, but he couldn’t go back. When you are in the cabinet, you have overall responsibility.”

The MK said Litzman had not sought permission to enter the cabinet, either, noting, “Let him eat what he cooked up by himself.”

Some Haredim began to exert pressure on other lawmakers immediately after Litzman’s resignation was announced. Various groups and Haredi media outlets said that ministers Moshe Gafni (UTJ) and Shas' Arye Dery needed to support Litzman and also resign, though not everyone agreed.