Netanyahu hopes health minister won’t quit, but says coalition not affected

UTJ’s Yaakov Litzman declares he is stepping down as health minister over infrastructure work on rail lines carried out on Shabbat

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) congratulates then-incoming Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman at the Health Ministry in Jerusalem, on May 20, 2015. (Amos Ben Gershom/ GPO/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) congratulates then-incoming Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman at the Health Ministry in Jerusalem, on May 20, 2015. (Amos Ben Gershom/ GPO/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Friday afternoon he hoped Health Minister Yaakov Litzman would rescind his resignation, hours after ultra-Orthodox leader Litzman, head of the coalition’s United Torah Judaism party, announced he was quitting his post in protest over infrastructure work on rail lines which is being carried on the Sabbath.

“The prime minister greatly values Minister Litzman, and hopes he will not quit the government,” said a statement issued on Netanyahu’s behalf.

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman at his office in the Health Ministry, Jerusalem, April 13, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The statement clarified that, even if Litzman does formally tender his ministerial resignation on Sunday, United Torah Judaism will not bolt the coalition, and therefore Netanyahu’s governing majority will remain intact. “The heads of the factions have clarified that they do not intend to leave the coalition,” the statement said, noting that the government would work to find the “best solution” it can to the crisis “to both respect the Sabbath and ensure safe, ongoing public transport.”

Netanyahu’s government “is the best for the people of Israel in all respects,” the statement asserted, and “seeks to find a golden path in order to continue its strong, stable governance.”

MKs from UTJ and its predecessor ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi parties have tended not to take ministerial positions in the governments in which they sit, preferring to limit themselves to posts as deputy ministers and committee heads — a reflection of a certain ambivalence regarding the secular Jewish state. Litzman himself entered the current coalition as a deputy minister in 2015 before taking up his ministerial position.

Welfare Minister Haim Katz, whose ministry is the country’s chief labor regulator, announced on Friday morning that he had authorized the work on the train lines to be carried out on the Jewish day of rest because failure to do so could endanger lives.

Minister of Welfare and Social Affairs Haim Katz. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)

“After thorough examination, I authorized only essential work to ensure the safety of rail traffic and if it were not carried out it could endanger lives,” Katz announced. “This decision reflects full consideration for the feelings of the religious public, on the one hand, and maintaining the routine of the train passengers on Sunday.”

“For the past year, every weekend I have weighed the needs of the railways against the sanctity of Shabbat and it has passed quietly,” Katz told Israel Radio, adding that he didn’t know why this Shabbat had suddenly become an issue that required Litzman to quit.

Shortly after Katz’s comments, Litzman told Netanyahu he was quitting and would formally submit his letter of resignation on Sunday. He had spoken to his religious leader Rabbi Yaakov Aryeh Alter, the head of the Ger Hasidic movement, who ruled that it was not permissible to do the work on Shabbat, Hadashot news (formerly Channel 2) reported.

In the ultra-Orthodox newspaper “Hamodia” which is owned by Litzman, he wrote, “We, as senior partners in the coalition, also have matters which are important to us… For the sake of the obligation to preserve the Jewish values of the state, we are in the government, influencing it.”

The statement suggested the party plans to continue to influence the government — that is, it will not quit the ruling coalition even after Litzman resigns.

Illustrative: An Israel Railways train passes the Ayalon Highway, near the Arlozorov Street ‘Central’ train station in Tel Aviv, August 23, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

According to reports, the infrastructure work scheduled for the coming weekend is complex and requires the participation of over 100 Jewish workers, a particularly thorny issue for ultra-Orthodox parties.

The Jerusalem-Tel Aviv fast train would be set back four months were work not carried out on Saturdays, sources in Israel Railways told Hadashot news.

In the past, similar crises were solved through one-time compromises that saw the use of non-Jewish workers only, but that is reportedly not possible for the upcoming project due to the nature of the work, which involves upgrading the train signalling system and requires specific employees with certain technical skills who cannot be readily replaced.

According to Army Radio, the work also will draw on the skills of German engineers who have arrived in Israel to work on the signaling system over the weekend.

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