Train work on Shabbat once again threatens coalition

Ultra-Orthodox party says Jewish workers must not be employed over weekend; but rail officials warn work will cause severe disruptions if held on weekday

An Israel Railways train (illustrative photo: Moshe Shai/Flash90)
An Israel Railways train (illustrative photo: Moshe Shai/Flash90)

Ultra-Orthodox members of the coalition once again threatened its stability on Wednesday over rail work planned for Saturday, with the United Torah Judaism party saying it could quit the government if the work goes ahead, Hadashot news (formerly Channel 2) reported.

The infrastructure work planned for the coming weekend is complex and requires the participation of over 100 Jewish workers — a particularly thorny issue for ultra-Orthodox parties.

While previous crises were solved through the use of non-Jewish workers, that is not possible in this case due to the particular nature of the work, according to the TV report.

UTJ is said to be demanding that the work be put off for several weeks, as the government debates new guidelines for work permits on the Sabbath, in which Jewish tradition is expected to be incorporated into considerations.

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman attends a conference in Jerusalem, February 16, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

But representatives of Israel Railways told Hadashot that the infrastructure work could not be delayed. If work is not allowed this Saturday, they will be forced to carry it out during next week, shutting down trains throughout the country and likely causing extreme disruptions in the nation’s transportation.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with ultra-Orthodox party leaders Wednesday night and the sides agreed to work towards a solution that will not hurt the public. Further meetings are expected to be held between politicians and rail representatives over the next two days in an attempt to find solutions to the matter.

In contrast to UTJ, Shas is not threatening a coalition crisis at this stage, the TV report said, quoting ultra-Orthodox sources.

Last week UTJ head and Health Minister Yaakov Litzman threatened to leave the government if construction work on intercity train routes took place on the Jewish day of rest. He later rescinded that threat after reaching a compromise deal with the Labor Ministry over the issue.

According to a statement from Litzman’s office, repair work on the train line between the Negev cities of Dimona and Beersheba was approved on a one-time basis, and with only non-Jewish workers.

In recent years, Israel Railways has undertaken a number of major projects, including a new high-speed Tel Aviv-Jerusalem line and major upgrades to existing lines.

Officials say construction and maintenance work over the weekend helps avoid delays to the busy weekday schedule.

But the Shabbat work on the rail infrastructure has sparked a series of rows between Netanyahu and the ultra-Orthodox parties in his coalition, despite the prime minister agreeing to ban all weekend construction projects on train lines in a deal struck with the parties prior to the 2015 election.

Last year, ultra-Orthodox politicians threatened to topple the coalition if Shabbat work continued on the rail lines, causing an uproar among commuters suffering from massive traffic delays and cancellations after Netanyahu succumbed to the pressure and ordered the work stopped.

In June, ministers ceded to sustained pressure from ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism and canceled weekend work on train lines in southern Israel.

Netanyahu, Katz, Social Affairs and Social Services Minister Haim Katz and the heads of the ultra-Orthodox parties at the time agreed to call off the scheduled work in favor of maintaining the “status quo” of not working on Shabbat.

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