Transportation Minister Israel Katz announced he would delay construction on a pedestrian bridge in Tel Aviv by six months, after drawing scorn earlier Wednesday for canceling building work planned on Shabbat amid protests from ultra-Orthodox lawmakers.
The announcement by Katz came shortly after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office expressed disapproval of his decision to cancel work on the bridge over the Ayalon Highway during the Jewish day of rest.
“It is unreasonable to close the Ayalon Highway in the middle of the week,” unnamed sources in the Prime Minister’s Office were quoted by Hebrew media as saying.
Speaking with Hadashot TV news, Katz said the decision to postpone construction on the pedestrian overpass was taken to prevent interference with work on the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv fast train, which is slated to open later this year.
Katz, a member of the ruling Likud party, also refrained from responding to the veiled criticism from Netanyahu’s office, instead hitting out at Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai and opposition lawmakers who accused him of bowing to ultra-Orthodox pressure.
“It’s true this began with the protest of the ultra-Orthodox but today I looked into things and I can say unequivocally that I’m not going to approve carrying out work during the weekend or the middle of the week,” he said, adding that unlike Huldai he has “national considerations.”
Huldai earlier accused the government of turning Israel into a theocracy by canceling work on the bridge during Shabbat.
The construction of the Yehudit bridge, which will necessitate shutting parts of Tel Aviv’s busy Ayalon freeway, had been slated to take place over six consecutive weekends, starting at sundown Friday and lasting 24 hours each time.
The work, which will require one direction of the highway to be shut down while massive steel support girders are hoisted into place, had been slated to coincide with Shabbat to minimize the impact on commuters.
However, ultra-Orthodox lawmakers in the government protested it as a violation of a coalition agreement to refrain from infrastructure work on the day of rest, which begins at sundown Friday.
Katz insisted he ordered the construction freeze because he was unhappy with the highway being closed to traffic, but opposition lawmakers and others accused him of knowing about the planned work all along and only halting the work because of ultra-Orthodox threats.
“The method chosen for the construction of the bridge seems problematic and may cause severe and disproportionate damage to the general public during the weekend,” said Katz, who is also intelligence minister.
Huldai wrote on Facebook that Katz’s decision was “scandalous.”
“Closing the Ayalon Highway in the middle of the week will create a transportation catastrophe for the public that will be several times bigger than the disruptions that were caused in the trains by stopping [maintenance] work on Shabbat,” Huldai said. “The government has no shame.”
In the past, ultra-Orthodox coalition members have also worked to block railway work from being carried out on Shabbat, causing disruptions to services when it was moved to workdays instead.
The Yehudit span will link an area with several office towers, including Google Israel’s office, that sits on the eastern side of the Ayalon freeway, which essentially cuts it off from the rest of the city center to the west of the highway.
When completed, the bridge will be 110 meters long (360 feet), 18 meters high, and 11 meters wide. It will have a pedestrian and a bicycle lane separated by a central area featuring benches.
Construction will require steel beams weighing a total of 1,000 tons to be lifted into place, Channel 10 reported Wednesday.
The now-canceled plan had scheduled the first work session for August 31. On each occasion the highway was to be closed in one direction starting 6 p.m. Friday for 24 hours.
Stuart Winer contributed to this report.