Religious parties demand meet with PM over Shabbat work on train
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Religious parties demand meet with PM over Shabbat work on train

Shas, UTJ heads say they feel ‘cheated’ by transportation minister after Katz tells press he resisted their pressure

Construction on the Tel Aviv Shalom rail line, August 27, 2016. (Israel Railways)
Construction on the Tel Aviv Shalom rail line, August 27, 2016. (Israel Railways)

The heads of the religious parties in the ruling coalition have demanded an urgent meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after he ruled on Friday that construction work on a train station in Tel Aviv would go ahead this Shabbat despite their objections.

Work on the Shalom station is part of construction on the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv high-speed train line.

In a joint statement Saturday, Shas leader Aryeh Deri, United Torah Judaism party head Yaakov Liztman and UTJ MK Moshe Gafni said they “strongly protest the unnecessary desecration of the Shabbat” with the work on the rail line over the weekend.

The interior minister, the health minister and the chairman of the Knesset Finance committee, respectively, held a conference call Saturday to discuss their response to the Shabbat work. According to Haaretz, the three are likely to demand Netanyahu fire Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz.

A source with UTJ told Haaretz Saturday that the parties felt “cheated” by Katz after he and Netanyahu indicated to them that postponing the work was tantamount to endangering human life.

The Prime Minister’s Office on Friday issued a statement highlighting the imperative not to endanger lives, and ordering that the work go ahead. Sections of the Ayalon highway, the main expressway through Tel Aviv, were closed until Saturday evening as the work proceeded.

“With the end of the Shabbat, we saw pictures taken during the day and we heard Katz saying that he didn’t succumb to religious pressure [not to have work done on Shabbat]. That doesn’t look like the preservation of human life,” said the source.

In their statement, the parties said they “regretted the extensive, unnecessary media festival surrounding the work that included a press conference and a press statement, which made the desecration of the Shabbat worse.”

Gafni told Haaretz Saturday that the work “could have been done on a regular day, not on Shabbat. It looks like lying is part of Katz’s profession.”

At the construction site earlier Saturday evening, Katz told reporters that the work was “necessary and warranted” and that he refused to cancel it “despite the [religious] pressures.”

Shas and UTJ held marathon talks on the issue overnight Thursday-Friday with Katz, and denied Friday reports that they had threatened a coalition crisis.

The PMO announced this week the establishment of a committee to “boost coordination between the Transportation Ministry and the religious factions.”

The committee will be headed by Netanyahu’s chief of staff, and will include the director general of the Transportation Ministry, the police commissioner, and ministers from the religious faction or their representatives.

Aryeh Deri with Avigdor Liberman during a plenum session in the Knesset, July 29, 2013. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Aryeh Deri, right, with Avigdor Liberman during a plenum session in the Knesset, July 29, 2013. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Last year, then-economy minister Deri ordered a halt to all Shabbat construction on the line, in a move that Israel Railways warned would delay the project by two years.

Construction on the express railway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem was originally set to be completed by late 2017 or early 2018.

Army Radio said at the time that Deri’s decision was the result of a dispute between the Economy Ministry and the Transportation Ministry. The Economy Ministry maintained the railway had to obtain special labor permits from the Transportation Ministry to work on Shabbat. The Transportation Ministry, meanwhile, said that the permits fall under the sole jurisdiction of the Economy Ministry.

View of Ayalon highway in Tel Aviv in 2015. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
View of Ayalon highway in Tel Aviv in 2015. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

The Economy Ministry defended the decision, telling the Ynet news website at the time that Israel Railways was bound by law to seek special Shabbat permits and had not done so.

The railway authority said the move would effectively set back the NIS 6 billion ($1.5 billion) project — which began in 2001 — until 2020.

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