Railway official: Move will cause 'huge delays' in projects

Regev says Shabbat train work to be reduced, answering Haredi party’s demands

Transportation minister says work planned for Saturdays to be spread across weekdays, though key safety tasks will continue as planned; predecessor decries ‘surrender to blackmail’

Transportation Minister Miri Regev (right) sits with Israel Railways CEO Michael Maixner (left) and Moshe Shimoni, chairman of the Israel Railways board of directors, in Jerusalem, January 11, 2023. (Transportation Minister's Office)
Transportation Minister Miri Regev (right) sits with Israel Railways CEO Michael Maixner (left) and Moshe Shimoni, chairman of the Israel Railways board of directors, in Jerusalem, January 11, 2023. (Transportation Minister's Office)

Transportation Minister Miri Regev announced on Wednesday that maintenance carried out on the public intercity rail system over Shabbat will be reduced, following demands from the Haredi parties in the coalition.

According to a plan presented by the ministry and Israel Railways officials at a meeting Wednesday, some of the maintenance work scheduled for Saturdays will be spread out over weeknights to ensure that only crucial work necessary for the safety of passengers is carried out on Shabbat, Regev’s office said in a statement.

“The minister ordered that the services to the public will not be harmed in any way due to the plan presented at the meeting,” the statement read.

UTJ head Yitzhak Goldknopf demanded on Saturday that the work ends, stating that in his party’s coalition agreement with Likud, “it was agreed this work would end” in line with the religious “status quo.”

The party’s strict adherence to Jewish law had the potential to spark a coalition crisis by testing the boundaries of religion and state, in a coalition in which Likud is more secular and liberal than each of its far-right and religious political bedfellows.

UTJ has long taken issue with public works projects on the Sabbath, and has previously pushed train maintenance to the fore of coalition crises. The party tried to demand power plants stop generating energy on Shabbat in December, but Likud struck the clause from its coalition agreement.

Illustrative: Trains are seen near the city of Sderot on July 15, 2018. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

An official from Israel Railways told the Kan public broadcaster that Regev’s decision is problematic and “will cause huge delays in many projects. It is a step backward.”

Labor chair Merav Michaeli, who served as transportation minister in the previous government, called the announced changes an “embarrassing spin.”

“There is no way to move rail works from Shabbat to the middle of the week without harming the service, simply because all hours of the night are already being used for work,” she tweeted.

“During my time as minister, we sped up works on Shabbat to restore service faster. Miri and Bibi capitulated to Haredi blackmail and are harming the railway and its services,” she added, using a nickname for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Yisrael Beytenu chair Avigdor Liberman slammed the “shameful decision” and echoed Michaeli’s charge that Regev and Netanyahu gave into blackmail.

“Bibi promised he would not harm the status quo, but like always, he also lied this time,” Liberman tweeted. “We will demand a special debate in the Knesset and use all the means at our disposal in order to overturn the decision.”

Housing and Construction Minister Yitzhak Goldknopf at his handover ceremony from outgoing minister Ze’ev Elkin, at the Housing Ministry in Jerusalem, January 1, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The UTJ-Likud coalition agreement, like all of Likud’s agreements with its religious partners, includes vague language promising to preserve the religion and state status quo.

“The status quo will be preserved in issues of religion and state according to what has been accepted for decades in Israel. The government will honor Shabbat,” the coalition agreement states.

Regev, who held the role before Michaeli, said she would reexamine several of her immediate predecessor’s initiatives, including public transportation and carpool lanes on intercity highways, a congestion tax and plans for the Tel Aviv metro.

The secular Michaeli had previously pushed to have the upcoming Tel Aviv light rail operate on Shabbat, causing an uproar within the ultra-Orthodox community and leading to Regev’s pushback.

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