MKs of all religious parties in the Knesset said that a coalition crisis would emerge if Israel Railways decided to proceed with maintenance work this Shabbos. In a letter to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu Thursday, leaders of the chareidi parties – United Torah Judaism’s Health Minister MK Rabbi Yaakov Litzman, Knesset Finance Committee Chairman MK Rabbi Moshe Gafni, and Interior Minister MK Rabbi Aryeh Deri of Shas – said that the prospect of such work taking place “is a very serious matter and a terrible violation of the status quo. It will de facto erase public observance of Shabbos in a very public manner, something that has not happened since the establishment of the state.”
Responding to the letter Friday morning, Netanyahu said that any work that could be delayed would be, but work that was deemed “emergency” and “life-saving” would be carried out. Work in Tel Aviv itself would take place, but work on several suburban lines that had been planned for Shabbos would be delayed. The chareidi parties have not yet responded to the statement and to Netanyahu’s offer.
The work entails maintenance and expansion of Israel Railway lines in the Tel Aviv area in order to accommodate the Tel Aviv light rail, currently under construction. Israel Railways claims that Shabbos – when trains do not operate – is the only available time to do the work without shutting the system down altogether, as most train lines pass through the Tel Aviv stations where the work is to take place. Police said that postponing the work to a weekday would cause a “danger to life” because it would entail shutting down main highways in Tel Aviv, and emergency vehicles and ambulances would not be able to get through.
Nonsense, the letter said; where there was a will, there was a way. “Former Prime Minister Menachem Begin, z”l, who prevented El Al from flying on Shabbos, once said that ‘we are an ancient nation, our history goes back many years. There are other nations that were and are ancient with long histories. But only one small nation called Israel was chosen to hear the G-dly Voice declare ‘Remember and Observe the Shabbos Day, do not do any labor on Shabbos’ – and shall the State of the Jews turn this day into a weekday?’”
The situation was serious enough, they wrote, that “we cannot take responsibility for the survival of a government that erases public observance of Shabbos. We respectfully request that the Prime Minister order that the work not be done on Shabbos until the relevant parties can gather and discuss the consequences of this activity.”
In his own statement, Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel (Jewish Home) said that his party would also see the work as a reason to break up the coalition. “There is no place for a public company in Israel to operate on Shabbos,” he said. “I have appealed to the Prime Minister and other officials to develop alternative plans to conduct the work on weekdays. Shabbos is a main value for the Jewish people, and violation of the status quo is a serious matter that could bring a political crisis that no one wants.”
According to Transport Minister Yisrael Katz, a High Court decision on the matter renders him unable to order that the work be suspended. Practically, the only way to prevent the work, said Katz, was for the Labor Ministry to cancel work permits for Israel Railways to operate on Shabbos, or by direct order of the Prime Minister.