Haredi minister issues ultimatum to Netanyahu

'Enforce ban on rail work over Shabbat - or we'll quit,' warns Health Ministry Yaakov Litzman.

David Rosenberg,

Binyamin Netanyahu speaks with Yaakov Litzman
Binyamin Netanyahu speaks with Yaakov Litzman

Israel’s Health Minister and the leader of one of Binyamin Netanyahu’s haredi coalition partners has threatened to resign if promises regarding the cessation of rail line work over the Jewish Sabbath are not enforced.

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, who also heads the Agudat Yisrael faction of the United Torah Judaism party, issued an ultimatum Friday, warning Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu that he would resign from his position if work on rail line infrastructure in southern Israel was carried out during the Jewish holy day.

Israel Railways, a state-owned corporation, has planned to carry out infrastructure work on a rail line between Dimona and Beer Sheva in the Negev on Saturday.

While Israeli law generally prohibits work by government agencies and government-owned transportation companies during the Sabbath, the Transportation Ministry has in the past permitted highway and rail work to be carried out on the Jewish holy day.

Following pressure by religious coalition partners, however, Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz had agreed to restrict infrastructure work on the Sabbath, permitting only crucial work that could lead to life-threatening situations if not carried out immediately. A committee including haredi MKs has been established to oversee infrastructure work and ensure that permits for work on the Sabbath are given only when absolutely necessary.

Nevertheless, repeated violations of the ministry’s promise were recorded, and when Israel Railways informed Litzman on Wednesday of work planned this coming Sabbath, Litzman turned to Prime Minister Netanyahu to ensure that the coalition agreement regarding work on the Sabbath by government corporations was not violated.

While Netanyahu’s office declined to guarantee Litzman that the work planned this Saturday would be nixed, the Prime Minister offered to bring a bill drafted by Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) to a vote at the Ministerial Committee for Legislation this coming Sunday. The bill, known as the “Supermarket Law”, would restrict the ability of businesses to operate on the Sabbath.

Despite the offer, however, Litzman warned that if the coalition agreement regarding infrastructure work was violated, he would resign his position in the cabinet and pull UTJ from the Netanyahu coalition. Without UTJ, Netanyahu’s government would lose its majority, falling to 60 seats in the 120-member Knesset. If the second haredi coalition member, Shas, also bolted, Netanyahu’s coalition would become a minority government of 53 seats and vulnerable to votes of no confidence.