Fractured coalition as ultra-Orthodox minister quits cabinet

Following protracted negotiations and numerous ultimatums, ultra-Orthodox Health Minister Yaakov Litzman quit the government over work carried out on railways during the Sabbath. 

By: Jack Ben-David, World Israel News

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman (United Torah Judaism) submitted his official letter of resignation Sunday morning following a flurry of threats that he would quit the coalition over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s failure to agree to halt work on Israel’s trains during Shabbat.

Explaining his decision in his letter to finally follow through on his repeated ultimatums, Litzman said that work on Shabbat was “a contravention of halacha (Jewish law)” and “goes against the status quo.”

After vacating the post, Netanyahu announced that the portfolio would be placed under his direction.

Litzman elaborated on the reasons he had chosen to resign, charging that the government was in repeated violation of the coalition agreement reached at the time of its formation, which committed to maintaining Shabbat as an official day of rest on which no work is to be carried out.

Litzman’s resignation, he continued, was “because of work on Israel Railways that desecrates the Shabbat, both yesterday and also in the recent past.”

“Unfortunately, Israel Railways recently made Shabbat a day of national renovation. All their renovations on the trains are done on Shabbat without any need,” he said.

Furthermore, “The fact is that in all countries across the world, all the trains work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and train stations never close, there is never any need to disrupt the transport,” Litzman reasoned.

“Only here do we do this for no good reason, out of spite. I am resigning from the government. This is against the coalition agreement, against the status quo, not to mention that it is against Jewish law,” he concluded. “I am sure that with God’s help, the reforms that I succeeded in doing, and thank God I succeeded, will continue.”

Litzman handed in his resignation following an announcement before the weekend by Labor and Welfare Minister Haim Katz––who is authorized to issue work permits on Shabbat––that work on the railway lines would proceed as planned.

Katz stated that after a thorough inspection, he had decided to authorize only essential work on Shabbat in order to ensure the safety of rail traffic. Failure to implement the maintenance work could, he argued, endanger passengers’ safety––the only provision that justifies work on Shabbat, according to halacha.

“This decision reflects full consideration for the feelings of the religious sector on the one hand, and maintaining the routine of the train users on Sunday on the other,” said Katz on Friday, opening the way to Litzman’s resignation.

Culmination of a prolonged disagreement

Litzman’s resignation is the culmination of a prolonged disagreement that has taken place within the government over what justifies a violation of Shabbat.

Last Friday, he threatened to withdraw from the coalition after the weekend unless Netanyahu put the brakes on intended infrastructural work on train lines in the south of the country.

On Thursday, Litzman met with Katz and Israel Railways CEO Shahar Ayalon to hammer out a solution to the crisis, concluding in a compromise that allowed Katz to authorize work on Shabbat necessitated by public safety considerations. However, Katz agreed to significantly reduce such work.

Outraged by Katz’s decision to push ahead with infrastructure work this past Shabbat, Litzman announced that he would be leaving the coalition, but added that his party will likely remain in the government.

Netanyahu said on Sunday that he regretted Litzman’s decision and insisted that Shabbat was also important to his Likud faction.

“I am sorry for Minister Yaakov Litzman’s decision to resign from the government. Litzman is an excellent health minister,” Netanyahu said. “Shabbat is important to us, as are the needs of all Israeli citizens who rely on safe and continuous public transportation. I believe we’ll find an agreed upon solution. We’re already working on one together.”