Trial runs on the first line of Tel Aviv’s light rail are at their height, in preparation for the line’s planned opening in November. Yes, it’s really happening. And even though one line isn’t enough to save the greater Tel Aviv region from transportation hell, it’s an important start that will give public transportation users a new option.
As fate would have it, the first line’s opening is due in the same month as the election. Granted, we already know the basic positions of those who support running public transportation on Shabbat, but due to the complex political situation created by the current unusual, eclectic governing coalition – and another like it could be formed after the election – the parties’ opening positions are less important.
Take, for example, Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli, who supports running the light rail on Shabbat. But so what if she supports it? Because of her commitment to the current “government of change,” she has downplayed her views, softened her intentions and never said whether this is a matter of principle over which she is willing to topple the government. What the outgoing coalition’s members were primarily committed to was a government without Benjamin Netanyahu, and that overshadowed everything else.
One of the costs of this approach may be that the light rail won’t operate on Shabbat – not just the first line, but also future lines, because whatever policy is set now will be very hard to change later. The current government, which doesn’t include any ultra-Orthodox parties, offered a rare opportunity to promote public transportation on Shabbat. But fear that such a decision would undermine the government’s stability led Michaeli to postpone the decision.
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And as usual in Israel, not making a decision is also a decision. At this stage, what it means is that there won’t be trains on Shabbat.
This is a serious missed opportunity for the “government of change,” because efficient public transportation is one of the most vital challenges facing crowded Israel. In another two years, Israel will have 10 million residents, and by 2040, it will add another three million. This will mean horrible overcrowding that necessitates efficient transportation solutions. Without them, the number of cars on the roads will only keep growing.
Operating the light rail on Shabbat is essential, because if there is no public transportation on weekends, the incentive to own a car remains in place. Public transportation is the best solution for both young people and senior citizens, and both these population groups are growing, especially in light of increasing longevity and Israel’s high natural population growth.
Michaeli and other politicians who support public transportation on Shabbat, like Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Prime Minister Yair Lapid, may face a dilemma after the election: For the sake of promoting this (and other issues), would they be willing to form a governing coalition with Likud that would be headed by Netanyahu, or would they rather, for the sake of preventing Netanyahu from returning to power, pay heavy prices to the ultra-Orthodox parties, including keeping the light rail closed on Shabbat?
There’s a clash between different values here, and in contrast to other challenges that can be deferred, there’s a window of opportunity that will soon close. Whatever is decided about the light rail now will determine the future operation of all the other lines on Shabbat, as well as that of the subway project.
There are very persuasive arguments against being part of a Netanyahu-led government, from every possible standpoint – moral, practical and democratic. But political instability also entails heavy costs. We’re paying them in the form of high housing prices, a high cost of living, traffic jams and other problems that stem from a lack of governability.
A right-wing/ultra-Orthodox government led by Netanyahu would certainly prevent the light rail from operating on Shabbat. And that fact brings us closer to the moment when members of the “Anyone But Bibi” bloc will have to decide whether they’re willing to pay whatever it takes for this principle, or whether there are also other principles that ought to be promoted. The first such dilemma is already making its trial runs.