Ultra-Orthodox pressure puts brakes on weekend train work

Netanyahu, Yisrael Katz and ultra-Orthodox ministers agree to ‘status quo’ on avoiding train repairs, construction over Shabbat

People wait for the bus near Hashalom train station by the Azrieli towers in Tel Aviv, September 22, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
People wait for the bus near Hashalom train station by the Azrieli towers in Tel Aviv, September 22, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Israeli ministers canceled planned work on train lines in southern Israel set for this upcoming weekend after sustained pressure from ultra-Orthodox parties who have routinely objected to any repair or maintenance work being performed on Friday evenings and Saturdays, the Jewish Shabbat.

At a cabinet meeting on Thursday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Transport Minister Yisrael Katz, Social Affairs and Social services Minister Haim Katz and the heads of the ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism agreed that the planned maintenance work would be called off and that the “status quo” on not working on Shabbat would be maintained.

The sides, according to reports in the Hebrew-language media, “would work to prevent the recent incidences of the desecration of Shabbat in the transportation field.”

Katz said he would instruct his office to not allow non-urgent work on the train lines during the weekend.

According to Channel 1 news, the agreement will also create a mechanism for the sides to discuss weekend work in future projects.

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

Maintenance work over the weekend helps avoid delays to the busy weekday schedule, officials say.

“The prime minister has again allowed the ultra-Orthodox to stymie the needed train work over Shabbat and along the way jam up the whole country,” KM Ksenia Svetlova (Zionist Union) said, criticizing the deal.

Work on a number of these lines and stations on Shabbat has sparked a series of rows with the ultra-Orthodox parties.

Last year, ultra-Orthodox politicians threatened to topple the coalition if Shabbat work continued on of 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.

Works planned on Shabbat at the Bnei-Brak station outside Tel Aviv in early August and possibly into September when the High Holy Days begin, may spark another crisis down the line.

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