Ultra-Orthodox MKs slam PM for apparent support of Shabbat construction work
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Ultra-Orthodox MKs slam PM for apparent support of Shabbat construction work

Moshe Gafni says Netanyahu ‘unaware of what’s happening in the country’ while others warn him to ‘back off’ contentious spat over new Tel Aviv bridge

United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni tries to speak with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset on November 24, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni tries to speak with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset on November 24, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A senior United Torah Judaism MK on Thursday publicly slammed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for saying a Tel Aviv highway can’t be closed in the middle of the week amid a spat over construction works during Saturdays, while other ultra-Orthodox lawmakers were reported to have warned the premier to “back off” the issue.

“I don’t think it is reasonable to close a main transportation artery like the Ayalon Highway in the middle of the week,” Netanyahu said earlier at Ben Gurion airport prior to his departure on a trip to Lithuania, responding to Transportation Minister Israel Katz’s announcement that he would delay construction on a pedestrian bridge by six months following a controversy about the work taking place on Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest, amid protests from ultra-Orthodox lawmakers.

“He probably isn’t aware of what is happening in the country,” MK Moshe Gafni of the United Torah Judaism party retorted, at a conference in the city of Bnei Brak.

“The Ayalon Highway was closed recently for a parade,” he said, apparently referring to June’s Tel Aviv Pride Parade. “It was also closed for a sports event, along with other central roads, and nobody said a thing.”

The highway wasn’t among the roads closed during the pride parade. A section of it was briefly blocked by LGBT demonstrators a month later during protests over surrogacy rights for gay couples. And while the Ayalon Highway was closed in recent months for a triathlon event and certain exits were temporarily blocked during the Giro D’Italia international cycling race, both events took place on Saturdays and not on weekdays.

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

Gafni continued by praising Transportation Minister Israel Katz for his decision and criticized Netanyahu for intervening.

“He shouldn’t have gotten involved,” he told the mostly ultra-Orthodox crowd. “The last time he intervened it didn’t help us. This reality, in which we need to refrain from turning Shabbat in the State of Israel to a secular day of construction works, is obligatory, and in the end it will be so.”

Meanwhile, Hadashot news reported that ultra-Orthodox lawmakers had directly told Netanyahu “back off the bridge story,” following his comments at the airport.

“Don’t get involved and don’t provoke us,” the reportedly said. “The briefing you gave before you took off damaged us, it was a type of media terror attack.”

The construction of the Yehudit Bridge, which will necessitate shutting parts of Tel Aviv’s busy Ayalon freeway, had been slated to take place over six consecutive weekends, starting at sundown Friday and lasting 24 hours each time.

The work, which will require one direction of the highway to be shut down while massive steel support girders are hoisted into place, had been slated to coincide with Shabbat to minimize the impact on commuters.

However, ultra-Orthodox lawmakers in the government protested it as a violation of a coalition agreement to refrain from infrastructure work on the day of rest, which begins at sundown Friday.

On Thursday morning, sources close to Netanyahu ramped up criticism of Katz, telling Army Radio, “Minister Katz’s mistakes are starting to become irritating.”

An artist’s impression of the Yehudit Bridge in Tel Aviv. (NCArchitects)

“How can it be that there is a request for work on Shabbat and the Transportation Ministry does not see it will be explosive?” the source said.

In response Katz, a member of the ruling Likud party, told the radio station that Netanyahu had given his support to the decision.

In the evening, Netanyahu released a conciliatory statement saying he “trusts Minister Israel Katz to deal with the bridge construction works and to find the optimal solution.”

Katz insisted he ordered the construction freeze because he was unhappy with the highway being closed to traffic, but opposition lawmakers and others accused him of knowing about the planned work all along and only halting the work because of ultra-Orthodox threats.

A worker is seen at the site of the planned Yehudit bridge spanning the Ayalon Highway in Tel Aviv on August 22, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

In the past, ultra-Orthodox coalition members have also worked to block railway work from being carried out on Shabbat, causing disruptions to services when it was moved to workdays instead.

The Yehudit span will link an area with several office towers, including Google Israel’s office, which sits on the eastern side of the Ayalon freeway, essentially cutting it off from the rest of the city center to the west of the highway.

When completed, the bridge will be 110 meters long (360 feet), 18 meters high, and 11 meters wide. It will have a pedestrian and a bicycle lane separated by a central area featuring benches.

Construction will require steel beams weighing a total of 1,000 tons to be lifted into place, Channel 10 reported Wednesday.

The now-canceled plan had scheduled the first work session for August 31. On each occasion the highway was to be closed in one direction starting 6 p.m. Friday for 24 hours.

Stuart Winer contributed to this report.

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