- Transport minister instigated coalition crisis, Netanyahu says
- Impasse over Sabbath rail repairs rekindles religious tension
A power struggle between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a senior minister in his Likud party shut down the train line linking two of Israel’s biggest cities for a day, snarling commuters in miles-long traffic jams and bringing hundreds of demonstrators into the streets before service was restarted.
Thousands of Israelis starting their work weeks and soldiers returning to base after weekend leave were stuck on clogged highways from Haifa to Tel Aviv after Netanyahu ordered repairs scheduled for the Sabbath to be done on Sunday to appease ultra-Orthodox coalition partners irate over what they see as a desecration of the Jewish holy day. Service resumed at 7 p.m.
The confrontation with the religious parties was instigated by Israel Katz, the transport minister, who’s trying to trigger a coalition crisis, Netanyahu’s office said.
“This is an unnecessary crisis initiated on the part of Minister Israel Katz that’s intended to undermine the relations between the prime minister and the ultra-Orthodox public,” the prime minister’s office said Saturday night via text message.
Katz’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment. He met Sunday afternoon with a Netanyahu aide in an effort to resolve the feud, the prime minister’s office said.
Although Netanyahu’s office said the latest repairs could have been done during the workweek, it’s not unknown for rail infrastructure work in Israel to be conducted on Saturdays.
Netanyahu is facing a rebellion from Katz, a seasoned politician who joined the Likud faction in the 1990s. Katz in August almost passed a Likud secretariat decision to strip key powers from Netanyahu, the party chairman, though he backed down after the prime minister reportedly threatened to fire him.
The crisis threatens to rekindle tensions between the country’s Orthodox establishment, which opposes work on the Sabbath, and the secular majority, many of whom are wary of religious interference in public affairs.
Most public transport in the Jewish state shuts on Saturdays in deference to Orthodox sensitivities. Hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets of Tel Aviv and Haifa on Saturday night when it was announced that train service between the two cities would not resume until Sunday night, affecting an estimated 250,000 commuters, according to the Haaretz newspaper.
This isn’t the first time Netanyahu has faced uprisings within his party, though, and it’s unlikely to broaden into a full-blown coalition crisis, said Shmuel Sandler, a political scientist at Bar Ilan University outside Tel Aviv.
“The prime minister doesn’t like ministers who compete for his job,” Sandler said. “He’s put down such rebellions before and this is probably going to be worked out one way or the other. We have bigger problems in this region.”