Katz defends ‘unequivocal’ need for train works on Shabbat

Transportation minister dismisses religious anger over construction in Tel Aviv over weekend, says not concerned Netanyahu may fire him to assuage Haredim

Transportation Minister Israel Katz during a Knesset committee meeting in Jerusalem, March 23, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Transportation Minister Israel Katz during a Knesset committee meeting in Jerusalem, March 23, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A potential coalition crisis was brewing on Sunday as ultra-Orthodox parties voiced outrage over construction work on a train station in Tel Aviv that took place on Shabbat.

As rumors swirled that the heads of the religious parties could demand Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz be fired over the scuffle, the minister himself brushed off any accusations of improper conduct on his part.

In an interview with Army Radio, Katz stressed his respect for religious values and Israel’s Jewish character, but said the work was done in line with the letter of the law, and was not a breach of the status quo.

Police and construction professionals had ruled “unequivocally,” he said, that conducting the work on a weekday would have created massive congestion throughout Tel Aviv, obstructing the work of emergency services and very possibly endangering public safety.

“These were essential works, which there was no other way to handle, and they are for a very worthy cause,” he insisted.

The crux of the conflict appeared to be Haredi leaders’ sense that they had been “cheated” by Katz, after he and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu indicated to them that the work at the Shalom station — part of construction on the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv high-speed train line, which demanded closing off large sections of the central Ayalon Highway for much of the weekend — could not be carried out on weekdays for fear of endangering human lives.

But the party leaders said they felt betrayed after discovering on Saturday night that the Transportation Ministry had turned the project into “an extensive and unnecessary media festival that included a press conference [by the minister] and a press statement, which only intensified the desecration of Shabbat,” according to a joint statement.

In the statement, Shas leader Aryeh Deri, United Torah Judaism leader Yaakov Litzman and UTJ MK Moshe Gafni said they “strongly protest the unnecessary desecration of the Shabbat.”

A UTJ source said, “When Shabbat ended, we saw pictures taken during the day and we heard Katz saying that he didn’t succumb to religious pressure [not to have work done on Shabbat]. That doesn’t look like the preservation of human life.”

Jewish law, which figures in some decisions of the Israeli government, permits the violation of the laws banning work on Shabbat in order to avert danger to human life.

Construction at the Tel Aviv Shalom rail line, August 27, 2016. (Israel Railways)
Construction at the Tel Aviv Shalom rail line, August 27, 2016. (Israel Railways)

The party heads have demanded an urgent meeting with Netanyahu. According to sources ultra-Orthodox political sources quoted by the Israeli daily Haaretz, the three are likely to demand Katz’s ouster.

Katz himself said he was not worried about his job, asserting that his conduct had been guided by the recommendations of safety professionals, whose assessments had also convinced Netanyahu that the work on Shabbat was necessary.

As for the press conference, Katz said he was not seeking to create an altercation, but simply to oversee the successful completion of the task in his capacity as minister.

Gafni told Haaretz Saturday that the work “could have been done on a regular day, not on Shabbat. It looks like lying is part of Katz’s profession.”

At the construction site earlier Saturday evening, Katz told reporters that the work was “necessary and warranted” and that he refused to cancel it “despite the [religious] pressures.”

Shas and UTJ held marathon talks on the issue overnight Thursday with Katz, and denied Friday reports that they had threatened a coalition crisis.

The Prime Minister’s Office announced last week the establishment of a committee to “boost coordination between the Transportation Ministry and the religious factions.”

The committee will be headed by Netanyahu’s chief of staff, and will include the director general of the Transportation Ministry, the police commissioner, and ministers from the religious factions or their representatives.

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