A bridge too far?

After Shabbat work halted, Tel Aviv mayor warns Israel en route to theocracy

Government slammed for bowing to ultra-Orthodox by canceling sabbath bridge construction; Meretz head plans urgent Knesset meeting as opposition fumes

Transportation Minister Israel Katz, left, and Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, inaugurate the model of the new Tel Aviv Light Rail in Tel Aviv on September 13, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Transportation Minister Israel Katz, left, and Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, inaugurate the model of the new Tel Aviv Light Rail in Tel Aviv on September 13, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The mayor of Tel Aviv on Wednesday accused the government of turning the country into a theocracy after the transportation minister halted bridge construction work planned for Shabbat in the wake of objections from ultra-Orthodox lawmakers.

The comments from Ron Huldai came as opposition politicians and others railed against the decision to freeze the planned work, accusing ministers of caving to pressure, a step they said would cause massive traffic jams.

“Instead of leading a democratic country according to sensible methods, they are making it a theocracy,” Huldai told Army Radio, hours after Transportation Minister Israel Katz ordered that the Ayalon Highway Co. find alternatives to building a new pedestrian bridge on 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 the work as a violation of a coalition agreement to refrain from infrastructure work on the day of rest, which begins at sundown Friday.

Katz had said he ordered the construction freeze because he was unhappy with the highway being shut, 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.”

“Just like the decision to close the mini-markets on Shabbat, this is part of an attempt to change the character of the state and the city,” he said referring to controversial legislation passed earlier this year which hindered local municipalities from granting convenience stores permission to open on Shabbat.

“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.”

An artist’s impression of the Yehudit Bridge in Tel Aviv. (NCArchitects)

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.

Huldai said he had instructed his legal department to look into petitioning the High Court of Justice about the matter, and rejected Katz’s suggestion that work be carried out at night instead.

MK Tamar Zandberg, who leads the left-wing Meretz party, said her faction was calling for an urgent Knesset meeting during the parliament’s recess on the matter “to return Israel to be a liberal democracy where infrastructure work is done according to needs and not according to the whims of rabbis.”

Opposition chief Tzipi Livi (Zionist Union) said that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had sold out the country for his own political ambitions.

“Netanyahu isn’t preserving Shabbat, he is preserving himself. In a choice between the public and political survival Netanyahu chooses personal survival at the expense of the public. Against an extremist coalition we need to present an emergency coalition,” she wrote on Twitter.

Zionist Union leader Avi Gabbay tweeted that “Netanyahu doesn’t care that you will wilt away in [traffic] jams. Only someone who doesn’t care about the public — could give in so quickly.”

“The ultra-Orthodox, the real leaders of this government, ordered Netanyahu to freeze the work on the Ayalon. So Netanyahu of course obeyed and froze it, and we’ll again have to be stuck in crazy traffic,” said MK Yair Lapid, head of the secularist Yesh Atid Party.

Head of the opposition Zionist Union MK Tzipi Livni speaks at the Knesset, in Jerusalem on August 8, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Katz’s order to halt work came hours after protests from lawmakers in the ultra-Orthodox UTJ and Shas parties hinted at a possible coalition crisis.

The UJT had published declarations against the work in community newspapers Wednesday and demanded that the work be moved to another day. Litzman has in the past resigned his ministerial post in protest of infrastructure work on Shabbat.

Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, whose ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party had spearheaded opposition to the bridge work, congratulated Katz.

“Katz… prevented unnecessary harm to the status quo and Israeli tradition,” Litzman said in a statement. “Cancellation of the Shabbat work on the Yehudit Bridge is a welcome and valued step which expresses correct judgment, instead of provocation and harm to the religious and traditional population which is the majority in Israel.”

Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman attends a Knesset Health Committee meeting on July 2, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev backed up Katz, a fellow member of the ruling Likud party.

“I think that we are talking here about an understanding of the needs of religious people who live here in this country, the Jewish state, where there are ultra-Orthodox living, who also deserve to have their opinions listened to,” Regev told the Hebrew-language Ynet website.

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.

The Ayalon, which runs north to south through the eastern part of Tel Aviv, is among the country’s busiest highways.

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