Inside story

Train crisis goes to heart of religion-state debate, but won’t derail government

Dispute over what public work gets done on Shabbat has brought chaos on the streets and within Likud, but the Haredim ultimately got what they wanted — and so the coalition will live another day

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, seen next to Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz at the weekly cabinet meeting at Netanyahu's office in Jerusalem, September 4, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, seen next to Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz at the weekly cabinet meeting at Netanyahu's office in Jerusalem, September 4, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

More than the Jews have preserved the Sabbath, the Sabbath has preserved the Jews, Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel told reporters Sunday morning as he headed into the weekly cabinet meeting.

Ariel, a senior member of the Orthodox-nationalist Jewish Home party, recycled the much-cited bon mot from early Zionist thinker Ahad Ha’am in order to justify his position in the current traffic-crippling controversy over the state conducting maintenance work on the national railways during the Jewish people’s day of rest. The holiness of the day, Ariel argued, trumps (nearly) all other considerations.

In response, political analyst Amit Segal — himself an Orthodox Jew — quipped on Twitter than more than Israel has safeguarded the Sabbath, trains running on the Sabbath have safeguarded Israel. Segal was presumably implying that in order to survive in today’s world, the Jewish state had (and still has) to make certain compromises.

The always-contentious conflict between religion and state in Israel reared its head again loudly this weekend, resulting in nasty political mud wrestling within Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party and bona fide chaos on Israel’s streets. Here’s a look at what caused the crisis, how idling trains and angry commuters could have shaken up the government, but why the dispute won’t topple the coalition.

The current crisis: Background

The so-called status quo regulating the state’s approach to religious issues mandates that the government not publicly violate the Sabbath, save in cases of life and death. That’s why, for instance, when the prime minister wants to issue statements on Shabbat he never does so in a formal manner but via “briefings” from his aides.

On paper, official bodies do not operate on Shabbat unless lives are at stake, in which case the seventh day’s sanctity is suspended and any usually prohibited act is permitted, even encouraged by Jewish law.

In practice, however, major public works, including even standard maintenance work on Israel’s railroad system, has taken place on the Sabbath for decades, even when ultra-Orthodox parties were essential parts of the governing coalition.

Crises have arisen occasionally, especially when news of government-sanctioned work on the day of rest that was not a matter of life and death somehow found its way onto the front pages of Haredi newspapers. It’s the Haredi media coverage that has sometimes turned otherwise standard procedures into political dynamite.

That is what happened with the current spat. Israel Railways had scheduled standard maintenance work to be carried out on a series of late summer Saturdays, when no trains are running. This was fully backed by Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, who also just so happens to (reportedly) be eyeing the leadership of the Likud party in the post-Netanyahu era.

When the issue hit the headlines late last month, the Haredi parties felt the need to put their foot down and threatened to leave the coalition — and thus bring down the government — if the repair work was not canceled. A week ago, a partial compromise came into play, with much of the work going ahead.

Netanyahu proposed a compromise for this past Saturday’s work, too, in which repairs would not go ahead at 17 out of 20 originally scheduled sites. He argued that work on the three remaining could proceed because the repairs were necessary for passengers’ safety — a matter of life and death.

The Tel Aviv Savidor Central Railway Station, September 3, 2016. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
The Tel Aviv Savidor Central Railway Station, September 3, 2016. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

At first, the Haredi factions — United Torah Judaism, led by Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, and Shas, headed by Interior Minister Aryeh Deri — agreed to the deal. Subsequently, though, they pushed Netanyahu to cancel the planned work at all 20 locations.

The last-minute changes of plan caused chaos: Complex preparations for the work had begun on Friday, but because it was not carried out on Shabbat, the train service was not usable in many locations. As the work belatedly got under way, some 150 train departures on the Haifa-Tel Aviv route, the country’s busiest, were canceled on Sunday morning, affecting an estimated 150,000 travelers and commuters.

Since soldiers returning to their bases after a weekend at home were particularly affected, the Defense Ministry organized a fleet of buses to help alleviate the chaos, but anger was still widespread among troops and the general public alike. Some felt that Netanyahu had folded to Haredi pressure, others that he had sacrificed their well-being in order to show his ostensibly rebellious transportation minister who’s boss.

Netanyahu, for his part, rejected any blame. “This crisis is completely unnecessary. There was no need to reach this situation,” he said at the beginning of Sunday’s weekly cabinet meeting. He was sitting right next to Katz, though avoiding any eye contact with him.

“There has been a status quo in the State of Israel for many years; we honor it. When work needs to be done on Shabbat — it is done, as it was last Shabbat on the Ayalon highway,” Netanyahu went on. “When it does not need to be done on Shabbat — it is not done. This has been our guiding principle; this is the principle that will continue to guide us.”

The political ramifications, or lack thereof

Katz, who heads the Likud secretariat, and Netanyahu have been at odds over control of some key party institutions for years. But the crisis over the train works has provoked an unprecedentedly harsh slugfest.

On Saturday night, the prime minister issued a statement blaming his transportation minister for having “initiated” an unnecessary crisis in order to undermine his relations with the ultra-Orthodox public or damage his image among the general public.

“The prime minister is outraged over Minister Katz’s cynical attack on passengers and soldiers,” the statement added.

During Sunday’s cabinet meeting, Netanyahu continued his public rebuke of Katz. “When nobody wants a crisis, it is possible to avoid it. On this matter I expect full cooperation by all ministers. Ministers are appointed in order to avoid crises and solve problems, not create them.”

Rumors of Netanyahu’s intention to fire Katz have been swirling since Friday, but on Sunday proved to be premature. The prime minister’s chief of staff, Yoav Horowitz, met with Katz on Sunday in a bid to sort out the crisis, and the word after the meeting was that, at least for now, the transportation minister will keep his job.

There are already too many disgruntled former Likud ministers (Kulanu leader and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, ex-education minister Gideon Sa’ar, ex-defense minister Moshe Ya’alon) for Netanyahu’s liking, and the prime minister would prefer not to push another Likud heavyweight into their arms.

Thus Netanyahu seems unlikely to spark a bigger Likud crisis over the issue, and the ultra-Orthodox parties have no need to. So the government will not fall over this episode, it appears. Besides countless missed appointments, soldiers arriving late for duty, and perhaps a growing sentiment in some parts of the electorate that the prime minister is susceptible to ultra-Orthodox pressure, this weekend’s crisis will not have drastic consequences. Not yet, at least.

The ultra-Orthodox parties react

For now, though, Shas, United Torah Judaism and even the more modern-minded Jewish Home have scored another victory in the ongoing struggle over the state’s ostensible violations of the Sabbath — and emphasized their coalition leverage.

“The entire world knows to rest on the seventh day; certainly the Jewish state needs to do so,” Minister Ariel said. Even if for decades, non life-saving maintenance work has been performed on train tracks on Shabbat, the time has come to change that, he added triumphantly. “If for 60 years they did something that wasn’t right, is that a reason to continue doing it?” Ariel asked reporters.

Litzman, of UTJ, disputed the assertion that Israel Railways had regularly violated the Sabbath on the scale that had been intended now. “There was nothing,” he insisted. Litzman also rejected the argument that work on the three sites that both sides had initially agreed on was crucial and thus permissible on the Sabbath.

All maintenance work could be done on weekdays, for instance during the eight-day shutdown of the railroad planned to take place in the near future, Litzman argued. If the work was planned properly, he said, there were ways to avoid major traffic chaos. As he spoke these benignly reassuring words, minutes before Sunday’s cabinet meeting, however, thousands of Israelis were still stuck en route to work, the army and other appointments, bitterly trying to figure out how to reach their destinations.

People seen at the Tel Aviv Savidor Central Railway Station, September 3, 2016. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
People seen at the Tel Aviv Savidor Central Railway Station, September 3, 2016. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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