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PM meets ultra-Orthodox over bid to bypass court Shabbat ruling

Haredi parties seek legislation to shutter stores on day of rest, but finance minister opposes move, paving way for coalition showdown

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Interior Minister Aryeh Deri (C), Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman (L) and United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni attend a Shas party conference at the Ramada Hotel in Jerusalem on February 16, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Interior Minister Aryeh Deri (C), Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman (L) and United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni attend a Shas party conference at the Ramada Hotel in Jerusalem on February 16, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with ultra-Orthodox political leaders on Wednesday to discuss their proposed legislative efforts to shutter Tel Aviv convenience stores on Shabbat — circumventing a recent High Court of Justice ruling — amid signs of future friction in the governing coalition over the issue.

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman (United Torah Judaism), Interior Minister Aryeh Deri (Shas), and Knesset Finance Committee chairman Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) were at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem to discuss the court decision of two weeks ago, which allows convenience stores in Tel Aviv to remain open on the Jewish day of rest.

Another meeting was arranged for Thursday.

The proposed legislation will likely face serious coalition pushback, with Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon stressing this week that he will fight any legislative steps taken to circumvent the court. Moreover, the Yisrael Beytenu party’s leader, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, cheered the court ruling two weeks ago, opining that “there’s no need for the government to intervene and damage the urban fabric that has developed” in Tel Aviv.

Kahlon, the leader of the coalition Kulanu party, announced Monday that he would oppose any legislation that attempts to bypass the court, singling out bills relating to Shabbat.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a signing ceremony for an agreement to build thousands of new apartments in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Ramat Beit Shemesh, April 03, 2017. (Hadas Parush/FLASH90)
Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a signing ceremony for an agreement to build thousands of new apartments in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Ramat Beit Shemesh, April 03, 2017. (Hadas Parush/FLASH90)

There will be no bills circumventing the court, “not in the Shabbat bill, nor in any other,” Kahlon told the Calcalist daily. “On the matter of Shabbat, I am in favor of the status quo.”

Gafni has already formulated and submitted a bill to the Knesset that would increase the Interior Ministry’s authority in approving municipal bylaws, authorizing Deri to prevent municipalities from passing legislation allowing for businesses to operate on Shabbat, such as the 2014 ordinance by the Tel Aviv City Council. The High Court had upheld the 2014 Tel Aviv City Council ordinance allowing the stores to remain open, with the court saying it would protect the cosmopolitan character of the coastal and mostly secular city.

Gafni’s bill, lodged last week without official backing from other ultra-Orthodox lawmakers, would retroactively annul any city bylaw related to Shabbat since 2014 unless it received the explicit approval of the interior minister, according to the text of the bill, published by the Behadrey Haredim news website.

Although the Interior Ministry already possesses authority over matters pertaining to Shabbat in municipalities, ultra-Orthodox politicians fear that the recent court ruling will constitute a precedent allowing local governments to make decisions concerning the operation of businesses on Shabbat independent of the Interior Ministry.

Illustrative picture of a Tel Aviv convenience store, July 30, 2008. (Moshe Shai/Flash90.
Illustrative picture of a Tel Aviv convenience store, July 30, 2008. (Moshe Shai/Flash90.

According to the Walla news website, Tourism Minister Yariv Levin — tasked with mediating between Netanyahu and the ultra-Orthodox on the issue — opposed Gafni’s bill during Wednesday’s meeting. The report quoted Likud officials saying the ruling party would support legislation to toughen restrictions on Shabbat openings, if it excluded Tel Aviv.

The position of the coalition’s other partner, the Orthodox nationalist Jewish Home, was not immediately clear. A party spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Despite Kahlon’s opposition, the ultra-Orthodox parties have political leverage on both the finance minister and prime minister on their pet projects, with Netanyahu requiring their votes for the bill to change the new public broadcaster (set to come to a first reading on Thursday) and Kahlon eager to pass tax reforms to benefit Israel’s middle class.

Deri last week requested that Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit seek a fresh hearing at the High Court of Justice on the ruling; Mandelblit has yet to respond.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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