Ultra-Orthodox minister resigns over Shabbat train coalition crisis

UTJ’s Yaakov Litzman stepping down as health minister over infrastructure work on rail lines, but party expected to remain in coalition

Then-health minister Yaakov Litzman speaks at the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem during a special session on September 18, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Then-health minister Yaakov Litzman speaks at the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem during a special session on September 18, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman on Friday informed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he is stepping down after the government signed a deal for ongoing infrastructure work on rail lines to continue this Shabbat.

While Litzman, who leads the Hasidic faction within the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism, will step down as health minister, his six-strong party is expected to remain in Netanyahu’s coalition.

Welfare Minister Haim Katz, whose ministry is the country’s chief labor regulator, announced on Friday morning that he had authorized the work to be carried out on the Jewish day of rest because failure to do so could endanger lives.

“After thorough examination, I authorized only essential work to ensure the safety of rail traffic and if it were not carried out it could endanger lives,” Katz announced. “This decision reflects full consideration for the feelings of the religious public, on the one hand, and maintaining the routine of the train passengers on Sunday.”

“For the past year, every weekend I have weighed the needs of the railways against the sanctity of Shabbat and it has passed quietly,” Katz told Israel Radio, adding that he didn’t know why this Shabbat had suddenly become an issue that required Litzman to quit.

Shortly after Katz’s comments, Litzman told Netanyahu he was quitting and would formally submit his letter of resignation on Sunday. He had spoken to his religious leader Rabbi Yaakov Aryeh Alter, the head of the Ger Hasidic movement, who ruled that it was not permissible to do the work on Shabbat, Hadashot news (formerly Channel 2) reported.

In the ultra-Orthodox newspaper “Hamodia” which is owned by Litzman, he wrote, “We, as senior partners in the coalition, also have matters which are important to us… For the sake of the obligation to preserve the Jewish values of the state, we are in the government, influencing it.”

The statement suggests the party plans to continue to influence the government — that is, it will not quit the ruling coalition even after Litzman resigns.

According to reports, the infrastructure work scheduled for the coming weekend is complex and requires the participation of over 100 Jewish workers, a particularly thorny issue for ultra-Orthodox parties.

The Jerusalem-Tel Aviv fast train would be set back four months were work not carried out on Saturdays, sources in Israel Railways told Hadashot news.

In the past, similar crises were solved through one-time compromises that saw the use of non-Jewish workers only, but that is reportedly not possible for the upcoming project due to the nature of the work, which involves upgrading the train signalling system and requires specific employees with certain technical skills who cannot be readily replaced.

According to Army Radio, the work also will draw on the skills of German engineers who had arrived in Israel to work on the signaling system over the weekend.

Coalition member MK Merav Ben-Ari of Kulanu praised Litzman’s term as health minister.

“Litzman was an excellent health minister. It is very disappointing that he will no longer be part of the government,” she tweeted. “I understand his decision but it is still disappointing. As well as being professional he is an honest, decent and good man.”

Members of the opposition, however, welcomed Litzman’s resignation.

“Litzman was the first to detect that the election is underway… every additional day this government remains in power is against the public interest of most Israelis,” said Zionist Union’s MK Yoel Hasson.

Meretz party head Zehava Galon welcomed the decision to carry out the work on Shabbat. “We have to remember that UTJ is holding the stick from both ends. It is still sitting in the coalition,” she said.

Hiddush CEO Uri Regev said in a statement that one should recite a blessing for being rid of Litzman. “It is regrettable that Litzman responded to the pressure of his master, the Rebbe of Gur, but Netanyahu refuses to respond to the wishes of the public that voted for him and wants a government without the ultra-Orthodox parties,” he said.

Construction of a bridge going over Emek HaArazim outside Jerusalem, for the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv fast train, seen on December 20, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

On Thursday, Litzman had told Army Radio that carrying out infrastructure work on the Jewish day of rest was not essential, and blamed Israel Railways for creating the crisis.

“The railway people are fooling us — the railway decided to make Shabbat the national renovations day. I can assure you, all the work can also be done not on Shabbat,” he said.

“I hope the situation will be resolved,” Litzman told the radio station on Thursday. “I don’t want desecration of Shabbat and I don’t want [new] elections.”

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.

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

Work on the rail infrastructure on Shabbat 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, canceling weekend work on train lines in southern Israel.

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

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