Haredi party says it wouldn’t have toppled government over Tel Aviv bridge

Haredi party says it wouldn’t have toppled government over Tel Aviv bridge

Statement comes after ultra-Orthodox protest causes transportation minister to halt Shabbat construction work on pedestrian walkway straddling Ayalon highway

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

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

Just days after Transportation Minister Israel Katz halted all Saturday work on a pedestrian bridge in Tel Aviv because ultra-Orthodox coalition members protested construction on the Jewish day of rest, sources in the Haredi United Torah Judaism party said they would not have toppled the ruling coalition if the work had gone ahead.

Work on the Yehudit bridge, which will span the Ayalon highway passing through central Tel Aviv, linking a high-tech office park with the rest of the city, had been planned to begin at the end of the month over six consecutive 24-hour periods, starting on Friday evenings. The construction, 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 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.

The United Torah Judaism party, an ultra-Orthodox faction in the government, published declarations against the work in community newspapers on Wednesday, and demanded that the construction be moved to another day. UTJ party leader and Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman has in the past resigned his post to protest infrastructure work on Shabbat.

But on Sunday, four days after Katz had announced the freezing of the work on the bridge, UTJ sources told the Kan public broadcaster that the political fallout for allowing the construction to go ahead would not have been dramatic.

“We wouldn’t have left the coalition because of Shabbat construction,” the unnamed official told Kan. “That’s precisely the reason Deputy [Health] Minister [Yaakov] Litzman resigned [his post as a full minister earlier this year] and returned as just a deputy, so that if there is construction on Shabbat, we won’t be responsible.”

In his announcement of the suspension on Wednesday, Katz did not mention the ultra-Orthodox protest, but rather said the declaration by the Tel Aviv city hall that the Ayalon highway would be closed for a series of six weekends was “outrageous and unnecessary.”

“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.

Transportation and Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz at a press conference held at the Ministry of Transportation on April 5, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

He ordered a freeze on the work and instructed Ayalon Highway Co., the company which operates the road, to find an alternative, including late-night work.

“We are acting in accordance with the instruction from the Transportation Ministry and we will look at alternatives,” Ayalon Highway Co. said in a statement.

Opposition lawmakers slammed Katz and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for caving to ultra-Orthodox pressure and likely causing a traffic nightmare on the Ayalon should it be shut during the week.

Zionist Union leader Avi Gabbay tweeted that “Netanyahu doesn’t care that you 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 stand in crazy traffic,” said MK Yair Lapid, head of the secularist Yesh Atid Party.

“A shameful surrender by Minister Katz to the ultra-Orthodox,” tweeted MK Tamar Zandberg, head of the left-wing Meretz party.

She said that her party would organize a Knesset debate during the current recess to discuss “returning Israel to be a liberal democracy where infrastructure work is done according to needs and not according to the whims of rabbis.”

The protest over the construction work was the latest in a series of political battles in which ultra-Orthodox lawmakers have threatened a coalition crisis over perceived violations of Shabbat, including in November, when plans to upgrade train lines over the weekend nearly toppled the government.

United Torah Judaism MK Uri Maklev leads a Science committee meeting in the Knesset, on June 4, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

UTK Knesset Member Uri Maklev said in statement Tuesday that “Shabbat is not a solution to [the problem of] construction work or maintenance work.”

“In the same way that they know how to close roads on a weekday for a marathon, such as bike races and other such events, so should also be the case for the construction of complex engineering infrastructure such as this,” Maklev said. “For every issue, a solution can be found these days, between timetables and proper planning. Shabbat is not a solution.”

MK Yinon Azoulay, from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, called in a letter to Netanyahu for the prime minister to urgently intervene to prevent a violation of Jewish law, and “violation of the status quo with all that entails.”

Azoulay noted that a clause in the coalition agreement states “the status quo regarding religion and state will be preserved as it has been for decades in Israel.”

When completed, the overpass will be 110 meters long, 18 meters high, and 11 meters wide. It will have a pedestrian and a bicycle lane separated by a central area featuring benches.

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.

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 from 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.

View of Ayalon highway in Tel Aviv in 2015. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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