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Bennett: Don't deny Israel a metro that is so essential

‘Metro Law’ in the balance as opposition seeks leverage over election schedule

Likud-led opposing parties hold up Israel’s most ambitious infrastructure project amid dispute over date for next national vote

The new Allenby underground station of the light rail Red Line in Tel Aviv, June 23, 2022. Some of the mass transit system runs underground. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
The new Allenby underground station of the light rail Red Line in Tel Aviv, June 23, 2022. Some of the mass transit system runs underground. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Opposition lawmakers led by the Likud party appear to have seized on plans for an Israeli metro system — the country’s most ambitious public transportation project — as a bargaining chip in the ongoing disagreement with the coalition over the upcoming election schedule.

Israel is likely headed for another round of national elections, its fifth in three and a half years, after lawmakers passed the first reading of a bill to dissolve Israel’s 24th Knesset in the early hours of Tuesday morning. Legislation for the Knesset’s dispersal is expected to pass its final readings by Wednesday at midnight.

Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli spent the day Tuesday working to convince the Arab-majority Joint List party, part of the opposition, to support the so-called Metro Law and see it pass, according to Hebrew-language media reports.

The Metro Law would provide the oversight and funding for a new subway system being built in central Israel; half of the network has already been approved.

Up until this week, Knesset members had been relatively united behind the project, which aims to resolve Israel’s traffic problems for the long term, taking cars off the roads and aiding commuters.

The scheme is Israel’s most ambitious infrastructure project, aiming to connect Tel Aviv’s commuter zones to materially reduce traffic. But as it runs largely through areas that are already densely built, it is potentially one of the most complex global engineering projects. Other subway systems have been built ahead of urban areas rather than after.

The Likud previously indicated support for the bill, but it was one of the pieces of legislation to fall by the wayside according to opposition-coalition understandings on Monday. Lawmakers spent the day debating issues such as the date of the next elections — the opposition prefers October 25 while the coalition would like to set November 1, a week later, as voting day — and which legislation would be passed before parliament dissolves.

It was agreed that a bill that would bar a person under indictment — such as former premier Benjamin Netanyahu — from forming a government would also not move forward.

And the Likud signaled it planned to vote against a pair of bills that are critical for Israel to be able to join the US Visa Waiver Program. This is in order to stymie the coalition’s attempt to advance the highly popular initiative on the eve of election season. The Visa Waiver Program allows citizens of participating countries to visit the US without applying for and being granted a visa, which takes time and money and is by no means assured.

The empty assembly hall of the Israeli Knesset, in Jerusalem, on June 27, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

According to Kan, the opposition prefers October 25 when yeshiva students — key voters for the Likud bloc, partly made up of ultra-Orthodox parties — are on vacation. But as of Tuesday evening, a majority of Knesset members were inclined to decide on November 1, Kan reported.

Earlier Tuesday, the US ambassador made a rare plea to Israeli lawmakers to support the visa-related legislation and the embassy reached out to a senior Likud MK Yariv Levin, asking the opposition party not to vote against the bills.

In the clearest indication that the Likud was also dangling the Metro Law to ensure its preferred election schedule, the party’s Yoav Kish said in the Knesset Tuesday, according to Kan: “I tell you in the simplest way, the election date is important. We want an achievement. If you want the metro, I am willing to convince [the Likud] and say that for [the election date], we will [finalize] the metro.”

Under the metro plan, some 45 kilometers (28 miles) of track and 31 stations would connect Tel Aviv, Rehovot, Ness Ziona, Lod, Be’er Yaakov, Rishon Lezion, Holon, and Ramat Hasharon, for a line called the M1 South. Another line, M3, would deliver 39 kilometers of track with 25 stations, connecting Bat Yam, Holon, Tel Aviv, Ramat Gan, Petah Tikva and Or Yehuda.

There is no expectation that passengers will be able to travel on these lines until 2032 at the earliest.

Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli visits the new Allenby underground station of the red line in Tel Aviv, June 23, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

As The Times of Israel previously reported, a further northern section of the proposed network has caused difficulties that would push back connections to Modi’in, Ra’anana, Kfar Saba, and Hod Hasharon until at least 2040.

According to Kan, Michaeli promised the Joint List on Tuesday that she would support building a metro line in an Arab-majority area known as the Triangle, and is comprised of cities such as Taybe, Tira and Kafr Qasim. But the Likud, as the leading party in the opposition, has refused to bring the law up for discussion.

Michaeli said on Twitter that it will be up to the opposition to explain its reasoning, and “they will have to account for why the national project that can help us escape traffic jams was stopped because of petty politics.”

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, too, took to Twitter Monday to implore the opposition not to ax the Metro Law. “Don’t deny Israel a metro that is so essential. Israel is a modern country that does not have a metro like in New York, Paris or London. That’s why we suffer from endless traffic jams. There is no Right and Left here,” he wrote.

“If the law does not pass, it will be postponed for many years and all of our children will pay the price,” he added.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid speak during a Knesset discussion, June 27, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Up until this week, the legislation was thought to have cross-party support as the metro is perceived as a key element in the development of effective public transport systems.

So far the 2022 national budget has allocated NIS 6 billion ($1.8 billion) toward the metro system’s construction. The total bill for the project is estimated by the Bank of Israel ast NIS 150 billion ($43 billion). It is expected that half of that will come from the regular government budget, and the other half from as yet “unbudgeted sources,” with most of the money required between 2026 and 2036.

There is already a plan in place that municipalities that will be connected to the metro will be expected to begin contributing funds towards the costs of the project starting next year, and that property owners near the lines should also face higher taxes to reflect the benefits they will derive from it.

Carrie Keller-Lynn, Jacob Magid, and Lazar Berman contributed to this report.

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