Meretz leader calls to expand Tel Aviv’s Shabbat bus service nationwide

Nitzan Horowitz repeats criticism of transportation minister over report he canceled public buses that coincided with Shabbat’s start or end

Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz attends  a party conference in Tel Aviv on January 14, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz attends a party conference in Tel Aviv on January 14, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Meretz chairman Nitzan Horowitz on Saturday said his left-wing party would push for the operation of buses nationwide on Shabbat.

Tel Aviv and surrounding municipalities in November introduced a bus service during Friday and Saturday, the Jewish day of rest. Speaking at a cultural event in Shoham, Horowitz said his party would seek to expand this program across the country.

He also repeated criticism of Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich, after the Ynet news site reported Thursday that the Transportation Ministry has recently canceled buses that operated during Shabbat.

“Smotrich is a fanatic minister who abuses the citizens,” Horowitz was quoted as saying by the website.

A public bus operated on Shabbat drives through Tel Aviv, November 23, 2019. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

While most Israeli bus companies do not operate bus lines on Shabbat, some lines only end after sundown on Friday or begin traveling to the start of the route before the end of Shabbat on Saturday.

According to the Ynet report, after complaints to the ministry from religious Israelis, over 50 scheduled bus trips that fell on Shabbat were reportedly canceled or delayed.

A source at the National Public Transport Authority defended the new policy, telling the news site that it would lead to better service by having buses run at times when there are more passengers.

“It’s important to note that the National Public Transport Authority acts under the principle of the status quo and is implementing the policy that is determined by the government,” the source said.

Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich speaks at a conference organized by the Makor Rishon newspaper in Jerusalem, November 11, 2019. (Noam Rivkin Fenton/Flash90)

Smotrich, a member of the national-religious Yamina party who has suggested governing Israel based on Jewish law, was accused of canceling the lines as “revenge” for Tel Aviv and surrounding areas having started to offer regular bus service on Shabbat.

Responding to the report, Yisrael Beytenu chief Avigdor Liberman vowed that his party, as a condition for joining a coalition following March elections, would demand that the issues of public transportation, and the opening of businesses on Shabbat, be delegated to local government.

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz said his party would “win [the election] and amend this,” while MK Itzik Shmuli of the Labor-Gesher party, which is running on a joint slate with Meretz, vowed “we’ll fight this decision by any means necessary.”

Responding to the outcry, Smotrich sarcastically derided the critics as spin doctors posturing for elections.

“Okay, I get it now, we’re into election season,” Smotrich said, adding that he had provided his political opponents an easy opportunity for electioneering. He defended the canceled bus lines as part of the transportation system’s status quo regarding Shabbat.

In Israel, buses and trains do not generally run in Jewish-majority cities on Friday night and Saturday before sundown. The practice was born of an agreement reached between the ultra-Orthodox community and Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, before the formation of the state.

Secular Israelis have long chafed at their restricted mobility during the weekend.

Israel’s ultra-Orthodox have also long protested infrastructure and maintenance work on roads and rail lines during Shabbat.

The new public transportation buses which run on Shabbat, seen driving in Tel Aviv. November 23, 2019. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Besides the Tel Aviv Shabbat service, whose routes circumvent religious neighborhoods and include transportation to surrounding communities including Ramat Hasharon, Givatayim and Kiryat Ono, other Israeli cities recently announced their intention to begin providing public transportation on Saturdays, including Tel Aviv suburbs Ramat Gan and Ganei Tikva.

Last year, a free Saturday bus line was launched in the northern town of Tiberias.

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