Bill to close convenience stores on Shabbat clears first Knesset hurdle

Bill to close convenience stores on Shabbat clears first Knesset hurdle

Proposal passes first reading 59-54, despite objections by coalition party Yisrael Beytenu and other MKs; Deri has vowed to quit if legislation blocked

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Illustrative: A Tel Aviv convenience store,  July 30, 2008. (Moshe Shai/Flash90/File)
Illustrative: A Tel Aviv convenience store, July 30, 2008. (Moshe Shai/Flash90/File)

The Knesset advanced a bill that would prevent convenience stores from opening on Shabbat in an early morning vote Tuesday, amid deep divides in the governing coalition over the contested legislation.

The bill cleared its first reading with a vote of 59 for and 54 against, hours after Interior Minister Aryeh Deri threatened to quit the government unless the legislation went ahead.

The vote came after hours of late-night negotiations to secure a parliamentary majority to pass it, after the coalition Yisrael Beytenu party — as well as Likud MKs Yehudah Glick and Sharren Haskel, and Kulanu MK Rachel Azaria — announced their opposition.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, returning from Brussels, went directly from the airport to the Knesset to resolve the issue.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman attends the weekly government meeting at the PM’s office in Jerusalem, on December 3, 2017. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)

Earlier, Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman doubled down on his opposition to the bill, as his coalition partner Naftali Bennett urged him to “climb down from the tree” and support the proposals.

The bill, sponsored by Deri of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, would grant the Interior 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.

Deri’s bill excludes restaurants, cafes, and bars, as well as theaters, concert halls, and other sites of entertainment. Other businesses, however, would be subject to his determination that remaining open on Saturdays was “essential.”

A second bill up for a vote, by Welfare Minister Haim Katz, would see the minister take “Jewish tradition” into consideration when issuing labor permits on Saturdays. This proposal was largely aimed at reducing train maintenance on Shabbat.

“With the help of God, the mini-markets bill won’t pass,” Liberman quipped at the weekly Yisrael Beytenu faction meeting, referring to Deri’s proposal. “I am in favor of Jewish tradition, I am in favor of Jewish values, and I strongly oppose religious coercion.”

The ultra-Orthodox coalition parties have demanded the law pass. Last month saw United Torah Judaism’s Yaakov Litzman resign as health minister over train maintenance performed on Shabbat.

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.

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.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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