Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s chief of staff, Yoav Horowitz, met Sunday with Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz in an attempt to end a public feud over train works on Shabbat.
Planned rail maintenance was ordered frozen by Netanyahu on Friday evening when ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism complained over the violation of the Sabbath that the work would entail, and threatened to topple the coalition if it wasn’t halted.
Following the meeting between Horowitz and Katz, officials apprised of the matter said that there was no longer a chance that Katz would be fired, and that efforts were being made to bring the transportation minister’s public dispute with Netanyahu to an end.
On Saturday night, Horowitz accused Katz of trying to carry out a “putsch” against Netanyahu.
The prime minister claimed in a statement issued over the weekend that Katz instigated the spat between Likud and leaders of ultra-Orthodox parties last week when he ordered the continuation of railway construction projects on Saturday, the Jewish day of rest, ostensibly in order to avoid train delays.
According to Horowitz, Katz promised the religious parties that there would not be any nonessential work on Shabbat, but suddenly presented 20 projects that he claimed had to be carried out over the weekend.
However, Israel Railways boss Boaz Tsafrir said Sunday that he is responsible for which projects are carried out and when they are done.
“All the professional considerations are mine alone. The Prime Minister’s Office, didn’t order me… and nor the transportation minister.”
Tsafrir noted in an interview with Army Radio that it is not unusual for work to be done on Shabbat, which lasts from sundown Friday until Saturday night, and that every weekend there are around 10 rail projects carried out.
The railways usually receive special dispensations, obtained a month in advance, permitting them to do work on Shabbat that cannot be completed during the early hours of weekday mornings when the trains aren’t running, he explained.
Negotiations with ultra-Orthodox parties to find a solution to the weekend fracas failed due to inflexibility by the religious parties, he claimed.
“We offered representatives of the ultra-Orthodox parties a comprise suggestion, but they weren’t prepared to listen to any compromise,” Tsafrir said.
Labor Party MK Shelly Yachimovich dismissed ultra-Orthodox claims that the train construction violated the law and charged that the citizens of Israel were “pawns” in Netanyahu’s political games.
United Torah Judaism MK Meir Porush told Israel Radio that the ultra-Orthodox parties learned that non-life saving work was being done on the Sabbath, which they plan to halt. The conflict between Katz and Netanyahu doesn’t interest them, he said.
Netanyahu and Katz, both Likud heavyweights, publicly fought last month amid speculation over a possible leadership contest in the ruling party in the next election cycle. Netanyahu summoned Katz to a meeting a day after the latter pushed through the Likud’s secretariat a series of decisions that weakened the position of the party chairmanship, held by Netanyahu.
Netanyahu’s Friday decision to halt the infrastructure work following pressure from ultra-Orthodox parties drew harsh criticism from opposition lawmakers and complaints from thousands of commuters in Tel Aviv and Haifa who began their workweek Sunday morning with gridlocked highways and hundreds of canceled trains.
Work on the rail projects instead began on Saturday night — after Shabbat ended — and into Sunday, leading to the cancellation of at least 150 train departures on the Haifa-Tel Aviv route Sunday morning, affecting an estimated 150,000 travelers and commuters.
The headache was particularly acute as Sunday is the day most soldiers are expected to return to base after weekend leave.