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Amid train spat, Netanyahu warns ministers ‘not to make problems’

After accusing Yisrael Katz of deliberately sparking crisis by ordering rail work on Shabbat, prime minister says he expects full cooperation from cabinet

Tamar Pileggi is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seen next to Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on September 4, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seen next to Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on September 4, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned his ministers not to step out of line and “create problems” Sunday morning, as an argument over work on rail lines over Shabbat left Israeli commuters stuck in gridlock Sunday morning and continued to entangle the sensitive governing coalition.

“Ministers are appointed in order to help prevent crises and solve problems, not make them,” Netanyahu said at the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday. “I expect the full cooperation of all ministers in this matter.”

Netanyahu’s comments were aimed at Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, who sat to Netanyahu’s left and maintained a poker face for much of the prime minister’s monologue, though he did break into a smile at one point.

Over the weekend, the prime minister and associates accused Katz of attempting a “putsch” by engineering a coalition crisis when he allowed work on the train lines over Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest, thus angering ultra-Orthodox parties and endangering the stability of the government.

“This crisis is completely unnecessary… There has been a status quo in the State of Israel for many years; we honor it. When work needs to be done on Shabbat – it is done… When it does not need to be done on Shabbat – it is not done,” he told cabinet members. “This has been our guiding principle; this is the principle that will continue to guide us.”

Netanyahu’s Friday decision to halt infrastructure work on several railway stations on Shabbat following pressure from ultra-Orthodox parties drew harsh criticism from opposition lawmakers and complaints from thousands of commuters in Tel Aviv and Haifa who began their workweek Sunday morning with gridlocked highways and hundreds of canceled trains.

On Saturday, the prime minister accused Katz of deliberately sparking a coalition crisis between his Likud party and leaders of ultra-Orthodox parties when he gave the initial order to continue the construction projects over the weekend, ostensibly in order to avoid train delays.

Travelers at central Tel Aviv's central Savidor station checking a schedule, where no trains northbound are listed, on September 3, 2016. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Travelers at central Tel Aviv’s central Savidor station checking a schedule, where no trains northbound are listed, on September 3, 2016. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

A statement from Netanyahu’s office accused Katz of attempting to “unnecessarily undermine the relationship between the prime minister and the ultra-Orthodox public.”

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.

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.

Activists, including two with masks of Benjamin Netanyahu and Yisrael Katz, protest against the decision to cancel all infrastructure work planned by Israel Railways on Shabbat on September 4, 2016. Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Activists, including two with masks of Benjamin Netanyahu and Yisrael Katz, protest against the decision to cancel all infrastructure work planned by Israel Railways on Shabbat on September 4, 2016. Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

This weekend’s spat started Friday after Netanyahu instructed Israel Railways to halt 17 out of 20 projects that had been scheduled to take place over the weekend, after ultra-Orthodox parties threatened to topple his coalition if work continued on Shabbat.

Work on the 17 projects instead began on Saturday night — after Shabbat ended — and into Sunday, leading to the cancellation of at least 150 train departures on the Haifa-Tel Aviv route Sunday morning, affecting an estimated 150,000 travelers and commuters. The headache was particularly acute as Sunday is the day most soldiers are expected to return to base after weekend leave.

The prime minister’s chief of staff, Yoav Horowitz, on Saturday night 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 nonessential work on Shabbat, but suddenly presented 20 projects that he claimed had to be carried out on the weekend.

The chief of staff said Netanyahu did everything in his power to avoid disruptions to passengers, and ordered, inter alia, 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.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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