Religion and politics collide, grounding Israeli train line

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, arrives to the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Sunday, Sept. 4, 2016. (Ronen Zvulun Pool via AP)
Israeli Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz arrives to attend the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Sunday, Sept. 4, 2016. (Ronen Zvulun Pool via AP)

JERUSALEM — Israeli commuters began their work week Sunday with massive traffic jams and a cancellation of train service along one of the country's busiest routes following a religious and political scuffle that had threatened to shake the governing coalition.

The crisis erupted over the weekend after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, under pressure from ultra-Orthodox coalition partners, made an 11th-hour decision to halt routine railway repairs scheduled on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath.

Orthodox Jewish law forbids work on the Sabbath, and a religious party in the coalition had threatened to quit the government unless Netanyahu halted the repairs.

Netanyahu's transport minister, Yisrael Katz, canceled a key train route on the Tel Aviv - Haifa line Sunday because of the delayed repairs. The government dispatched extra buses for some 90,000 affected commuters.

The resulting traffic jams offered a physical illustration of the outsized power the leadership of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish minority wields in Israeli politics.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish politicians offer Netanyahu support to stabilize his coalition, while the government carves out large budgets for ultra-Orthodox schools and seminaries. Recent reforms aimed at forcing religious youths to enlist for army service, which is compulsory for most other Jewish Israelis, have been scrapped.

Netanyahu's office accused Katz, a senior figure in the ruling Likud Party, of orchestrating the crisis to undercut the prime minister.

"Ministers are appointed to avoid crises and solve problems, not to create them," Netanyahu said at the start of his Cabinet meeting, with Katz sitting next to him.

Katz and Netanyahu's close relationship tanked last month when Katz, chairman of the Likud secretariat, held a vote to revoke some powers from Netanyahu to prevent him from being able to unilaterally appoint supporters to party positions.

That political drama dovetailed with ultra-Orthodox politicians' complaints about Sabbath train repairs.

Train maintenance work has long taken place on the Sabbath, without drawing the ire of the ultra-Orthodox. According to Israeli law, repairs may take place on the Sabbath if performing the repairs during the week would significantly inconvenience the public.

But ultra-Orthodox news sites doggedly covered news of the Sabbath train work recently, and ultra-Orthodox constituents egged on their politicians on social media to do something to prevent it.

"It's a snowball," said Shahar Ilan, an expert on the ultra-Orthodox and a journalist for the Israeli newspaper Calcalist.

By evening, train service resumed and the tempest quieted down.

The chairman of Israel's governing coalition announced that Netanyahu decided not to fire Katz over the crisis, and Israeli commentators said the ultra-Orthodox were not expected to make further threats to quit the coalition.

But Israel Railways said more midweek train services may be disrupted if Netanyahu continues to delay Sabbath repairs.

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