Cabinet green-lights bill shuttering mini-markets on Shabbat

Cabinet green-lights bill shuttering mini-markets on Shabbat

Legislation that could see convenience stores closed on Saturdays in most of the country faces opposition within the coalition

Two young girls eat ice cream as they leave a mini market in Jerusalem, August 2, 2010. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Two young girls eat ice cream as they leave a mini market in Jerusalem, August 2, 2010. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

A controversial bill that could prevent convenience stores from opening on Shabbat was approved by the government Sunday despite opposition from a key coalition partner, the Yisrael Beytenu party led by Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman.

Yisrael Beytenu ministers opposed the bill, Housing Minister Yoav Galant from the Kulanu party abstained, and all other minister voted in favor. The bill will now go on to the Ministerial Committee for Legislation before its first reading in the Knesset.

While cabinet approval usually confers on a bill automatic coalition support in the Knesset, in this case the legislation faces opponents even within the coalition parties.

Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center attend the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, December 3, 2017. (Sebastian Scheiner/AFP)

The bill, sponsored by Interior Minister Aryeh Deri of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, would grant the ministry the power to oversee and reject local ordinances relating to whether business may remain open on Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest that runs from Friday evening through till Saturday night.

Though the bill would make an exception for mostly secular Tel Aviv, it could lead to stores in other places being forced to shut down for the Jewish day of rest. The measure came after the High Court upheld Tel Aviv’s right to allow markets to stay open on Shabbat.

Last week Yisrael Beytenu faction chairman MK Robert Ilatov warned coalition chairman David Bitan in a letter that any attempt to bring the so-called mini-market bill to a vote would be opposed by Yisrael Beytenu’s five lawmakers in the Knesset.

“This is a clear violation of the status quo and a blow the secular public that is a majority in Israel,” said Ilitov Sunday, reaffirming the party’s intent to vote against the bill in parliament.

Yisrael Beytenu leader Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman leads a faction meeting in the Knesset, on November 27 2017. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Liberman said last week that he saw no justification for such a bill. “I’m not seeking to open mini-markets in (ultra-Orthodox) Bnei Brak and there is no reason to close mini-markets in Haifa or anywhere else,” he said.

During the ministerial debate about the bill Deri said “we want to maintain the status-quo across the country and to prevent Shabbat becoming the national day of trade.”

Deri noted that, reluctantly, there is nothing he can do about Tel Aviv but “we only want that what was in the past will be in the future.”

Israel Beytenu’s stance could hurt Netanyahu’s efforts to heal coalition divisions after a crisis erupted with ultra-Orthodox parties over work carried out on Shabbat.

Last month saw United Torah Judaism’s Yaakov Litzman resign as health minister over train maintenance performed on Shabbat.

Last Sunday, Netanyahu reached a deal with the ultra-Orthodox parties under which the government would seek to maintain the status quo with regard to Shabbat observance in the country, including passage of the mini-market bill.

Beyond the mini-market bill, Netanyahu, Litzman and Deri also agreed to back a proposal by Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz that would take several considerations — including Jewish identity — into account when ordering maintenance work on rail lines. On Wednesday lawmakers gave a preliminary nod to that bill.

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, who is also chairman of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, speaks to journalists after handing in his resignation to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (unseen) in Jerusalem, November 26, 2017. (AFP/GALI TIBBON)

Israeli law forbids businesses from operating during the Jewish day of rest, with exceptions including places of entertainment, restaurants and basic services such as pharmacies, as well as work that can’t be performed at other times.

Rail officials say if the maintenance work is not done on Shabbat, when trains do not run, they will be forced to suspend service on Sunday, often the biggest commuting day.

Tel Aviv, home to a mostly secular population, has sought to widen the scope of businesses allowed to be open on Shabbat, while ultra-Orthodox political factions have sought to add restrictions and toughen enforcement of Shabbat laws.

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