End to coalition crisis? PM strikes deal with haredi parties

'Status quo' on religion and state to be formally adopted as law, compromises hammered out regarding businesses, soccer games on Sabbath.

David Rosenberg,

Yaakov Litzman (l), Binyamin Netanyahu (r)
Yaakov Litzman (l), Binyamin Netanyahu (r)
Hadas Parush/Flash90

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu hammered out a comprehensive agreement with his haredi coalition partners Sunday evening in an effort to end an ongoing coalition crisis brought to a head Sunday morning by the resignation of Health Minister Yaakov Litzman (United Torah Judaism).

Litzman quit Netanyahu’s government Sunday, after the state-owned Israel Railways conducted infrastructure work over the Sabbath. The resignation takes effect after 48 hours, before which it may be withdrawn.

Following Litzman’s resignation, Shas chief and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri and Finance Minister Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) announced they would boycott the coalition’s weekly meeting of party leaders, citing the government’s failure to halt work on the Sabbath by the state-owned Israel Railways company, as well as the coalition’s failure to advance legislation restricting the ability of stores to skirt laws prohibiting business on the Sabbath.

The Prime Minister met with members of UTJ and Shas following the coalition crisis flare-up, yielding a compromise agreement which will promote a watered-down version of a bill proposed by Deri and enable Litzman to retain control of the Health Ministry, even without returning to his position as Health Minister.

Under the agreement reached Sunday night, the government will advance legislation enabling deputy minister to have administrative control of their ministries, allowing Litzman to be appointed as Deputy Health Minister and retain control of the Health Ministry.

Prior to a 2015 Supreme Court ruling, UTJ coalition members had avoided serving as ministers, preferring to be appointed as deputy ministers with de facto control over a ministry. If passed, the proposed law would permit UTJ coalition partners to return to their previous modus operandi, maintaining an official distance from the government even while effectively controlling a ministry.

In addition, the agreement hammered out Sunday resolved the ongoing dispute over the so-called “supermarket law” pushed by the Shas party, which would restore the Interior Minister’s ability to strike down municipal regulations permitting the opening of some businesses during the Sabbath.

A ruling by the Supreme Court in April approved a Tel Aviv municipal regulation permitting some 164 businesses to remain open on the Sabbath, despite state law restricting stores on the Jewish holy day and the intervention of the Interior Ministry.

In what was her final ruling as chief justice, Miriam Naor ruled that “Each individual should be allowed to mold their own Shabbat according to their personal beliefs. Living together is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Tolerance to other opinions and mutual respect, live and let live is the desired philosophy.”

As part of Sunday’s agreement between Netanyahu and his haredi coalition partners, the “supermarket law” circumventing the Supreme Court ruling and restoring the Interior Minister’s ability to strike down municipal bylaws will be promoted by the government, though markets in Tel Aviv will be permitted to remain open.

In addition, the government will not attempt to end televised soccer games during the Sabbath, another point of contention between the haredi parties and the Netanyahu government.

Regarding infrastructure work during the Sabbath, Netanyahu, Shas, and UTJ agreed to invest Labor and Welfare Minister Haim Katz with discretionary power to define when work may be undertaken on the Sabbath. Under the agreement, the minister will take Jewish tradition, public safety, and public access to transportation into consideration when making decisions.

In a face-saving arrangement, haredi coalition partners agreed that there will be ‘no disruptions to rail service during the week’ – effectively conceding that some infrastructure work will take place during the Sabbath.

In exchange for these concessions, UTJ and Shas received assurances that the government will advance legislation codifying the so-called “status quo” on religion and state into law.

The status quo agreements, which pre-date the establishment of the state in 1948, restricted public transportation on the Sabbath and ensures that the Chief Rabbinate remains the ultimate state religious authority on matters including conversion and Kashrut certification.

While some elements of the status quo, including the role of the Chief Rabbinate, have been enshrined in law, others, including limits on public transportation on the Sabbath, remain at the discretion of the Israeli government.