Traffic unsnarls after train stoppage makes mess of morning commute
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Traffic unsnarls after train stoppage makes mess of morning commute

Police report movement ‘as usual’ along nation’s highways after hours of traffic jams from Netanyahu-Katz spat

Traffic on Ayalon highway runs past the Arlozorov Train Station in Tel Aviv on June 23, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Traffic on Ayalon highway runs past the Arlozorov Train Station in Tel Aviv on June 23, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Israeli traffic returned to normal on Sunday afternoon, following a morning marked by jams and congestion amid an ongoing political spat that spurred the halting of trains to and from Tel Aviv, police said.

“The traffic center reports that in all parts of the country, transportation on intercity highways is flowing as usual,” a police spokesperson said.

Sunday morning saw large traffic jams reported on highways between Haifa and Tel Aviv, the country’s busiest, as well as along smaller alternative routes, after some 150 train departures on the coastal route were canceled, the spokesperson said.

Planned repair work to the rail line was ordered frozen by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday evening when ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism complained over the violation of the Jewish Sabbath, threatening to topple the coalition if it were not prevented.

The cancellation affected an estimated 150,000 travelers and commuters, including thousands of soldiers returning to their bases after weekends home.

Illustrative photo of heavy traffic on the highway entering Tel Aviv. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Illustrative photo of heavy traffic on the highway entering Tel Aviv. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

The trains were scheduled to resume operating on the line only at 7 p.m. Sunday, Israel Railways said.

In all, Netanyahu canceled Saturday repair work on 17 out of 20 sites throughout the rail system. The three sites that continued operating involved repairs deemed necessary for passengers’ safety, and so were acceptable to Haredi lawmakers as Jewish religious law allows violating the Sabbath to save lives.

The surprise cancellation along the Tel Aviv-Haifa route caught Israel Railways crews after they had already disassembled parts of the track. Unable to return the tracks to their place due to the onset of the Sabbath on Friday night, the company was forced to leave the tracks unusable throughout Saturday, and were only able to begin concluding the repairs Saturday night. Trains were expected to begin running as normal by Sunday night.

File: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talks with Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz during a Knesset plenary session, February 8, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
File: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talks with Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz during a Knesset plenary session, February 8, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Netanyahu on Saturday accused Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz of intentionally sparking a coalition crisis with Haredi parties over Sabbath work on the railways, just weeks after the two fought over control of a key Likud party institution.

Netanyahu claimed Katz engineered the crisis by ordering construction work on the rail network over the weekend when it wasn’t necessary to do so, ostensibly in order to avoid train delays.

“This crisis was started by Katz unnecessarily to undermine the relationship between the prime minister and the ultra-Orthodox public, as well as damage his reputation within the general public,” Netanyahu’s office said a statement.

The prime minister was “shocked at the cynical attack,” his office said.

“From the very beginning, there was no need to call for work to be done on the Sabbath. It was possible for the work to be done at other times, and not hurt the ultra-Orthodox public, or the soldiers,” Netanyahu’s office said, adding that Katz was “holding both passengers and soldiers hostage.”

Rumors that Netanyahu was planning to fire Katz surfaced Friday, and then again on Saturday night in a Channel 2 report.

Netanyahu and Katz, both Likud heavyweights, publicly fought last month amid speculation over a possible leadership contest in the ruling party in the next election cycle. Netanyahu summoned Katz to a meeting a day after the latter pushed through the Likud’s secretariat a series of decisions that weakened the position of the party chairmanship, held by Netanyahu.

An Israel Railways train passes the Ayalon highway, near the Arlozorov Street "Central" train station in Tel Aviv, August 23, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
An Israel Railways train passes the Ayalon highway, near the Arlozorov Street “Central” train station in Tel Aviv, August 23, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Netanyahu then summoned Katz to his office, and the two agreed to delay implementation of most of the measures until representatives of the two men hammered out a compromise.

The Likud secretariat, of which Katz is chairman, is the internal organ responsible for party operations, including staff, budget, regional offices and election campaign efforts.

On Saturday night, the prime minister’s chief of staff, Yoav Horowitz, accused Katz of trying to carry out a “putsch” against Netanyahu, Israel Radio reported. Horowitz said that the political “maneuver” caused deliberate harm to soldiers and other train passengers.

According to Horowitz, Katz promised the religious parties that there would not be any non-essential work on the Sabbath, then apparently reneged on the promise and advanced 20 projects that he claimed had to be carried out over the weekend.

The chief of staff said Netanyahu had done everything in his power to avoid disruptions to passengers, and had ordered alternative transportation for soldiers on Saturday night and Sunday morning. Netanyahu’s office said the prime minister also instructed the Transportation Ministry to increase the number of bus lines in Tel Aviv and Haifa to alleviate delays caused by the suspended rail service.

Several hundred took part in demonstrations against Netanyahu’s decision in central Tel Aviv and at Haifa train stations on Saturday night.

Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report

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