Photo Credit: Kobi Gidon, GPO
Netanyahu with his Haredi coalition partners (not at a soccer game)

Is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looking to destabilize his own government? What other reason would he have to alienate—out of left field, so to speak—his three religious coalition partners, United Torah Judaism, Shas, and Habayit Hayehudi?

In 2015, the Movement for a Democratic Jewish State petitioned the High Court of Justice, on behalf of hundreds of observant Jewish soccer players, to prevent soccer matches on Shabbat because this contravenes Israel’s Hours of Work and Rest Law. Normally, an Israeli employer is not allowed by law to force employees to work against their will on Shabbat – but working as a professional player on a soccer team requires that one show up on that one day a week when the team is playing – showing up only for training sessions on weekdays just won’t do.

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The High Court recently decided to place an injunction on soccer games on Shabbat, demanding that government anchor Shabbat games in clear legislation – thus threatening to alter 70 years of a status quo with the religious sector.

An extraordinary ministerial meeting took place on Monday in Netanyahu’s chambers, attended by two members of the ministerial committee for Shabbat work permits: the Prime Minister and Minister of Labor and Social Affairs Haim Katz, as well as officials from the Prime Minister’s Office, the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Culture and Sport, and the Ministry of Labor and Welfare. As it emerges from the protocol of that meeting, which was leaked to the media, Netanyahu demanded that Deputy Attorney General Raz Nizri formulate ASP recommendations as soon as possible to facilitate a general permit to operate Israel’s soccer industry on Shabbat.

Nizri told the meeting that the High Court of Justice demands the state approve granting a Shabbat work permit to the entire soccer industry, and suggested that such a permit be examined and approved. Assistant Secretary of State Ronen Peretz claimed that such a decision “would have a broad impact on other businesses in Israel’s economy.

At the end of the meeting, as we mentioned, Netanyahu instructed Nizri to work with the relevant parties on recommendations regarding the granting of a general Shabbat permit for the soccer industry. It was further decided that “the Ministerial Committee for Work Permits on Shabbat will convene again in the coming days to discuss these recommendations and to formulate a decision accordingly.”

An advisor to the UTJ Knesset delegation who asked to remain anonymous told us he was dumbfounded at Netanyahu’s move, which, should it result in openly legalizing soccer games on Shabbat, would force religious parties to quit his coalition government.

One intended or unintended consequence of the Netanyahu move would be to cause a rift within the party he fears the most, Habayit Hayehudi. MK Bezalel Smotrich, of the more rightwing partner of Naftali Bennett’s party, Tekuma, on Thursday sent an urgent letter to the Prime Minister, expressing his shock at his latest legislative initiative.

Smotrich reminded Netanyahu that the current law regulating work on Shabbat states that “the Minister of Labor and Social Affairs may permit the employment of an employee during the weekly Day of Rest hours or in part thereof, if he is convinced that the cessation of the work […] may harm the defense of the State or raise security concerns, or cause great harm to the economy, the work process, or the satisfaction of needs that, in the opinion of the Minister of Labor, are essential to the public or a part thereof.”

“I fail to understand how soccer matches on Shabbat meet the very clear criteria as specified in the above section,” an irate Smotrich wrote, asking, “Will the suspension of soccer matches harm the defense of the state or personal and economic security of individuals?! (sic).”

“No damage to the economy is apparent, since there are various sports – the basketball industry, for example – which do not play on Shabbat, and it does not appear to be causing harm to the country’s economy,” Smotrich noted.

Smotrich concluded with a veiled threat: “The granting of a general permit to the soccer industry is completely contrary to the tradition of Israel and the custom that has existed since the beginning of the State regarding the observance of Shabbat in public. It would severely undermine the delicate status quo that has been eroded anyway over the years.

“This industry is funded by millions of shekels from the defense budget (e.g. policemen) and its operation on Shabbat forces the entire Jewish people to participate in the desecration of the Shabbat, and this to us is unacceptable.”

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