Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday that he would speak separately with Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, in an attempt to lower the tension between his two key coalition partners, who have been clashing over a law that could shutter stores on Shabbat.
“This is the time to calm down, to lower the heat. The people and the state need it,” Netanyahu told ministers during the weekly meeting of coalition heads, adding that he would be talking to Liberman and Deri separately in private.
“If we want this government to keep working for the benefit of the Israeli public, we need to lower the flames and continue working together,” added the prime minister.
Ultra-Orthodox politicians, including Deri, had earlier slammed Liberman for visiting a shopping area in the southern city of Ashdod, grabbing his morning coffee in a show of defiance at laws shutting businesses on Saturdays. Later in the day thousands of Ashdod residents protested against the closure of businesses in the city on Shabbat, calling it an act of religious coercion.
Deri, leader of the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox party Shas, hinted that cooperation between him and Liberman, and between their parties, could stop, marking a possible coalition crisis.
“I’m through with Liberman,” Deri reportedly told close associates Saturday evening. “Liberman trampled on Sabbath and crossed every line. There are things that are beyond any personal friendship.”
The demonstration in Ashdod came a week after the Knesset passed a law granting the interior minister the power to override city bylaws allowing mini-markets to open on the Jewish day of rest. Critics of the legislation decried it as religious coercion, while its proponents said it was necessary in order to maintain the longstanding status quo in Israel regarding businesses operating on Shabbat.
Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party, whose supporters include a large number of secular Israelis originally from the former Soviet Union, opposed the mini-market law, despite being in the coalition.
“Those who say the mini-markets law won’t change anything are wrong and misleading. This [law] will create an even bigger divide in the nation,” Hadashot news quoted Liberman as saying during his visit to Ashdod.
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“Just as I respect those who go to synagogue on Shabbat, I expect them to respect those who go to buy coffee.”
On Sunday morning, the United Torah Judaism ultra-Orthodox party called on Netanyahu to take action against Liberman.
“A senior minister in the government and coalition decided to aggressively inflame matters in the midst of the Sabbath, and incited against large communities and the sanctity of the Sabbath, hoping to make political gains from inflaming tensions between different groups and deepening the rift within Israeli society,” the party said in a strongly worded statement.
“Our faction calls on Netanyahu to immediately call the defense minister to order, for deepening the rift while publicly harming the sanctity of Shabbat,” added the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox party.