Coalition Chairman MK David Bitan (Likud) admitted on Saturday that the crisis between Prime Minster Netanyahu and his Transport Minister Yisrael Katz (Likud) has reached an irreversible phase, which could mean that the PM will fire his Minster in the coming days. The rift between the two Likud politicians is not new, and the last few months have seen several attempts by Katz to attack Netanyahu on a variety of issues, some personal (Katz has been promised the foreign ministry which Netanyahu is keeping to himself for now), others have to do with actions by Katz that are threatening the stability of Netanyahu’s government.
Last week, Katz forced a confrontation between his PM and the Haredi coalition partners over massive works in the Israeli train infrastructure that were scheduled for Shabbat. The protests from the Haredim resulted in Netanyahu ordering his minister to limit the Shabbat works to only those projects which could result in danger to the public should they be carried out on a weekday. In the end, the railroad and Tel-Aviv’s main urban highway, Netivey Ayalon (Rt. 20) were blocked to traffic throughout the last Shabbat in August, with heavy traffic jams that ended only when the works were concluded around 8 PM Saturday.
Last Friday, Sept. 2, five minutes before the start of Shabbat, Katz ordered the cancellation of all the projects that received special dispensation, pushing them off to Saturday night and Sunday. The order for the technical teams to abandon the work sites was given after they had taken apart some of the rails, so that there was no way to resume service Saturday night. In fact, as of Saturday night, train passengers have been told the service would only be renewed Sunday night.
Both sides, Netanyahu and Katz, are blaming each other for the crisis, with Meretz and Labor siding with the transport minister and urging their people to demonstrate in front of the shut down stations. Only a few hundreds have arrived at those rallies Saturday night — which blame Netanyahu for capitulating to the Haredim. In addition, the opposition parties have collected 25 MK signatures to call a special session of the legislature to debate “the desecration of Shabbat and the harm to soldiers and civilians by the train crisis.”
Sunday is the day thousands of IDF soldiers who spent Shabbat at home are riding the trains back to their bases, many of them for free. Now the IDF is working overtime rustling up buses for these soldiers. In a small and tense country like Israel, messing up with the schedule of our kids going back to the Army does not make one a popular politician. Which is why Meretz Chair Zehava Galon has already appealed to the Supreme Court against both Netanyahu and Katz, demanding that they be compelled to terminate their decision to cut Shabbat railroad works.
Netanyahu issued a statement Saturday saying, “This is an initiated and unnecessary crisis on the part of Minister Yisrael Katz designed to undermine relations between the Prime Minister and the ultra-orthodox public or alternatively to damage the image of the Prime Minister among the general public. From the outset there was no need to initiate work on Shabbat. It would have been possible to carry out the work on other dates that would not have harmed the ultra-orthodox public, passengers or soldiers. For example, it would have been possible to combine the work with the eight-day shutdown of the railroad – which has the approval of the Transportation Ministry – in the coming weeks. Israel Katz is holding passengers and soldiers as hostages in an unnecessary and artificial crisis that he initiated after having failed in his attempt to take over the Likud institutions. The Prime Minister is outraged over Minister Katz’s cynical attack on passengers and soldiers and is doing his utmost to minimize the damage to these publics in the next 24 hours. To this end, the Prime Minister and Defense Minister have agreed to place buses at the disposal of soldiers over the next 24 hours. The Prime Minister has also instructed the Transportation Ministry to boost public transportation between Tel Aviv and Haifa with additional buses.”
Yes, Katz tried and failed to take over the Likud institutions, about two and a half weeks ago, he got a huge majority (95%) of the Likud Secretariat, which he happens to head, to agree to the narrowing of the absolute power the Likud Chairman, one Benjamin Netanyahu, had enjoyed in personnel appointments and distribution of party funds. Katz apparently assumed Netanyahu was experiencing a weak period, what with police looking into his and his wife’s use of public funds, and figured the prime minister would shy away from confrontation with the third strongest man in Likud. He was outrageously wrong. The PM called him to his office at 9 AM the next day and, reportedly, handed him an unsigned letter of resignation, which he expected Katz to sign unless he issued a statement walking back the entire secretariat vote from the day before.
Katz capitulated, but apparently did not stop sulking and looking for new ways to force a showdown with the PM. The reason for his combative stance has to do with Netanyahu’s inviting Avigdor Liberman (Yisrael Beiteinu) into his coalition government, which boosted his hold on his government and reduced the ability of any individual coalition member to get his way. Katz is aware that his days in this government are numbered, Netanyahu will never keep his promises to him regarding the foreign ministry, so, frankly, he might be better off outside the tent than inside.
Meanwhile, the Likud is splitting up between Katz and Bibi supporters, and the fact that several Likud ministers have thrown their weight — albeit politely — behind Katz, may be enough to avoid an actual showdown. Meanwhile, for the next 24 hours or so, Israeli train passengers remain in dire need of transportation alternatives.