The Shabbat infrastructure railroad works that have rocked Israeli politics over the past two weeks have been going on quietly during Shabbat for the past ten years, with the Haredim turning a blind eye on them, and everybody remaining happy. Now at least two wars are being waged over the same routine works, one between Prime Minister Netanyahu and Transport Minister Yisrael Katz, the other between UTJ and Shas and the Prime Minister and Transport Minister — because the rule of thumb for Israel’s Haredi parties is that as soon as a government violation of Shabbat is exposed publicly, it must stop or the Haredim walk. That was the reason the Haredim stood up on their hind legs a week ago, when the Israel Train Company announced delays in entering Tel Aviv on Shabbat due to infrastructure work that could not be done during the week.
The Israel Railways corporation is state-owned. It means that, unlike the privately owned bus and taxi services, which operate during some or all of Shabbat, depending on the city, the railroad must obey the laws of Shabbat, at least as long as the Haredim are part of government. “Had the railroad company continued to perform those projects quietly, without media attention, the Haredim would have kept quiet,” a source inside UTJ told JNI.media. “But as soon as it became known, no Haredi party could remain in government with those works going on.”
This was the root of the crisis which on Sunday morning is paralyzing traffic across Israel. Someone at the IR decided to make a big announcement — most likely because they had the public’s interest in mind. The infrastructure works necessitated closing down Rt. 20, an eight-lane highway that cuts through the Tel Aviv metropolitan area and on Shabbat ushers in thousands of shoppers and entertainment seekers from around Israel.
As soon as they became public, those railroad projects turned into a ticking bomb. Last week, the Haredim accommodated the Netanyahu government, because, frankly, Netanyahu has been the most pro-Haredi prime minister ever, and anyone who would replace him would necessarily be harder to work with. So they agreed to the concept that there were some infrastructure projects that had to be carried out on Shabbat, because on regular weekdays they would threaten the lives of the thousands of motorists roaming nearby.
The following Thursday, before the most recent Shabbat, the Haredi parties again examined the planned works and approved three out of the 20 proposed projects as, in fact, constituting risk to lives on weekdays.
But over the past week there were growing voices in the Haredi community that expressed doubt regarding the very idea that the secular Transport Ministry, which is not run by rabbis, would rule on halakhic issues such as Pikuach Nefesh (Heb: saving a life). As a result, those three approved projects received added scrutiny from the Haredi politicians, who concluded they were no different from the rest and should be carried out on weekdays as well.
The former chief rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Yisrael Lau, told Israel Radio that secular politicians are trying to “hold the stick on both its ends,” a Talmudic term meaning trying to argue both ends against the middle. On the one hand, Rabbi Lau said, secular politicians are demanding that businesses be permitted to stay open on Shabbat, because Shabbat is the only time hundreds of thousands of Israelis are able to pack Tel Aviv in search of shopping, dining and a good show; on the other hand, Shabbat is when those railroad works should be carried out because that’s when the city is empty, and none would be harmed from potential work accidents.
The train infrastructure works which began at 5:30 PM Friday, were interrupted two hours later by an order from the prime minister’s office, after Shabbat had already begun. These works constituted the three out of 20 projects which the Haredi Parties initially agreed were dangerous to life had they been carried out during the week, but then those same Haredim had a change of mind and/or heart, at the very last minute, literally.
Initially, the PM’s office and the Transport Ministry ordered the Israel Train Company to proceed with the works into Shabbat, as had been the case every month for the past 10 years. A group of 200 employees arrived at 5:30 PM at the railroad track segment between Tel Aviv and Hertzlia, and started to take it apart. But later that same early evening, the Haredi parties announced they reject the compromise, which is why at 6:30 PM, moments before the start of Shabbat, the PM’s office ordered the work to stop.
The order reached the workers at the site at about 7:30 PM, and they dropped everything and left. No one bothered to consider what would happen Saturday night and Sunday, since it would take about 25 hours to complete the work. A similar infrastructure project near Atlit, south of Haifa, was likewise interrupted Friday night.
So, who is the real culprit in this crisis? The Haredim for insisting that a government in which they are members not openly desecrate Shabbat? The Prime Minister’s office, which capitulates to Haredi pressure because this coalition is probably the best political combination Netanyahu could have hoped for, and he’s not giving it up over one day’s suffering by Israeli passengers? Or is it Transport Minister Katz, who chose to turn an ordinary, behind the scenes project that’s been going on uninterrupted — into a full-blown coalition crisis?
We suggest all of the above. And the solution to this crisis will probably be the firing of Transport Minister Katz, because he started it, looking to erode the boss’s coalition. Expect blood — Yisrael Katz has friends inside Likud, who may rise up to defend him, as Welfare Minister Haim Katz has already done.