Shas head Deri threatens to quit government unless Shabbat bill clears vote

Shas head Deri threatens to quit government unless Shabbat bill clears vote

No coalition majority for bill to shutter mini-markets on Jewish day of rest, after Liberman's Yisrael Beytenu party and other MKs object

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Interior Minister Aryeh Deri in the Knesset, November 1, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Interior Minister Aryeh Deri in the Knesset, November 1, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Interior Minister Aryeh Deri threatened to quit the government unless his bill that could prevent convenience stores from opening on Shabbat cleared its first Knesset vote on Monday night, amid deep divides in the governing coalition over the contested legislation.

Deri’s proposal was on the agenda for Monday evening, but the coalition lacked a parliamentary majority to pass it, after the coalition Yisrael Beytenu party — as well as Likud MKs Yehudah Glick and Sharren Haskel, and Kulanu MK Rachel Azaria — announced their opposition.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, returning from Brussels, was set to go directly from the airport to the Knesset to attempt to resolve the issue.

Deri issued an ultimatum on Monday evening conditioning his continued tenure as minister on the government’s passage of the bill in its first reading.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman attends the weekly government meeting at the PM’s office in Jerusalem, on December 3, 2017. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)

Earlier, Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman doubled down on his opposition to the bill, as his coalition partner Naftali Bennett urged him to “climb down from the tree” and support the proposals.

The bill, sponsored by Deri of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, would grant the Interior Ministry the power to oversee and reject local ordinances relating to whether business may remain open on Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest that runs from Friday evening through till Saturday night.

Though the bill would make an exception for mostly secular Tel Aviv, it could lead to stores in other places being forced to shut down for the Jewish day of rest. The measure came after the High Court upheld Tel Aviv’s right to allow markets to stay open on Shabbat.

Deri’s bill excludes restaurants, cafes, and bars, as well as theaters, concert halls, and other sites of entertainment. Other businesses, however, would be subject to his determination that remaining open on Saturdays was “essential.”

A second bill up for a vote on Monday, by Welfare Minister Haim Katz, would see the minister take “Jewish tradition” into consideration when issuing labor permits on Saturdays. This proposal was largely aimed at reducing train maintenance on Shabbat.

“With the help of God, the mini-markets bill won’t pass,” Liberman quipped at the weekly Yisrael Beytenu faction meeting, referring to Deri’s proposal. “I am in favor of Jewish tradition, I am in favor of Jewish values, and I strongly oppose religious coercion.”

Speaking at his Jewish Home faction meeting a short while later, Bennett said Liberman must make concessions and support the bill, as it “upholds the [religious] status quo.”

Liberman “climbed up a tree from which it’s hard to get down,” said Bennett. “If we want the government [to last] for another two years [until elections], we must contain and absorb [concessions].”

“In the coming hours, we will try to push the law,” added Bennett.

The ultra-Orthodox coalition parties have demanded the law pass. Last month saw United Torah Judaism’s Yaakov Litzman resign as health minister over train maintenance performed on Shabbat.

Israeli law forbids businesses from operating during the Jewish day of rest, with exceptions including places of entertainment, restaurants and basic services such as pharmacies, as well as work that can’t be performed at other times.

Tel Aviv, home to a mostly secular population, has sought to widen the scope of businesses allowed to be open on Shabbat, while ultra-Orthodox political factions have sought to add restrictions and toughen enforcement of Shabbat laws.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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