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News Analysis: Conflict over Street Closing Looms As First Coalition Crisis

The government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nearly faced its first coalition crisis this week — because of a 660-yard stretch of street here.

Of course, more was at issue than the street, and in the struggle to secure a victory on that larger issue, Israeli was pitted against Israeli in a fight that involved stone-throwers, a convoy of cars and billy-club wielding mounted police.

For the more than 5,000 fervently Orthodox residents of neighborhoods straddling Bar Ilan Street, nothing less was at stake in the dispute than the Jewish character of the city — and country — in which they live.

For the secular Israelis who joined a convoy of automobiles to drive along Bar Ilan on the Sabbath, at stake was the ability of Israelis to enjoy full freedom in the Jewish state — including freedom from religious observance, if they so desired.

Bar Ilan Street — named after Meir (Berlin) Bar-Ilan, one of the leaders of the Hamizrachi religious federation in the early days of the state — has for years been the object of campaigns by the fervently Orthodox community, which sought to stop traffic from winding through their neighborhoods on the Sabbath.

But with Netanyahu’s recent electoral victory — and the presence of three religious parties in his governing coalition — the haredim, as the fervently Orthodox are known in Israel, saw the chance to win their campaign.

Transportation Minister Yitzhak Levy, a member of the National Religious Party, last Friday adopted a compromise previously recommended by a public committee that gave the haredim much of what they wanted.

The Sturm Committee, named after its chairman, Elazar Sturm, was a public committee that included Israelis from all portions of the religious spectrum, including nonobservant Jews.

The committee recognized that given the diverse nature of Jerusalem’s population, in which the fervently Orthodox represents about 30 percent of the capital city’s 410,000 residents, the only way to deal with the issue of closing Bar Ilan on the Sabbath was through compromise.

As a result, the Sturm Committee recommended closing the street on the Sabbath and religious holidays, but only during times of prayer services.

The recommendation was not put into effect when it was issued during the previous Labor-led government.

Levy’s decision was taken so quickly that Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, who joined Netanyahu on his trip last week to the United States, expressed surprise in New York that it was made without consulting him beforehand. Once back in Israel, Olmert implied that he supported the recommendations of the Sturm Committee, which he had appointed.

Netanyahu — pointedly — was careful to avoid the issue.

The haredi community smelled victory after Levy issued the order last week, but then the High Court of Justice stepped in.

Responding to appeals made by representatives of the Labor Party, the court issued an interim order that left the road open for 15 days until the government could provide reasons why the street should not remain open.

The fervently Orthodox community began protesting last Friday night and returned to confront Sabbath traffic the next day.

Followers of the secularist Meretz Party joined in a convoy of cars to drive along Bar Ilan to demonstrate their right to drive wherever they wanted, on whatever day they liked.

As Saturday wore on, the confrontation turned ugly.

Thousands of haredim gathered along the road, which runs down the hill from the entrance to Jerusalem toward the northern neighborhoods of Ramot Sharet and French Hill.

They shouted “Shabbos, Shabbos” at the passing cars, reminding their drivers that they were desecrating the Sabbath.

They threw stones, soiled baby diapers and other garbage at police guarding the street.

adjacent roads and using their clubs against those who showed any resistance. According to witnesses, the police entered apartments to apprehend religious protesters; local residents complained that police had used force even against women and children.

Knesset member Avraham Ravitz, referring to the day as “Black Sabbath,” described the police actions as a “pogrom.”

Ravitz — a member of the fervently Orthodox United Torah Judaism bloc – – threatened to quit the governing coalition unless Jerusalem Police Chief Aryeh Amit was fired.

He later backed away from the threat, but he had already made it clear that the issues involved could threaten the stability of the nascent Netanyahu government.

Amit, in turn, insisted that his police had done the minimum to keep the situation from getting out of hand. He received the support of Police Chief Assaf Hefetz and, at the top of the chain of command, from Public Security Minister Avigdor Kahalani.

Tempers cooled after the weekend, but each side made it clear that they would return to the fray with the return of the Sabbath this weekend.

During the week, both also sides made it known that they were not about to abandon their principles. Yossi Sarid, chairman of Meretz, warned non-observant Israelis of the danger of remaining on the sidelines. “If secular indifference continues,” he said, “secular people will no longer be able to live in Jerusalem.”

Meretz activists pointed to several practical reasons for their stance.

Bar Ilan is a major traffic artery, they argued; it is the only direct link between the entrance to the capital and its northern neighborhoods, and it is the fastest way for ambulances to reach Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus.

But the main argument of the secularists was that the religious community would not stop with the closure of Bar Ilan. Indeed, some haredi spokesmen were already declaring that they were also seeking to close a road linking Ramot to Pisgat Ze’ev and French Hill. They were also talking of closing more streets in the predominantly religious town of Bnai Brak.

Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, a haredi activist, put the matter bluntly, saying that his community did not recognize the authority of the High Court of Justice, but would only rely on decisions taken by the Eida Haredit, the rabbinical governing body of the fervently Orthodox community.

Unlike the secular and haredi activists, who spoke in terms of a culture war, others tended to play down the conflict.

Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau pointed at precedents in which roads were being closed down near synagogues on Saturdays. This was the case on Keren Hayesod Street in Jerusalem, on Allenby Street in Tel Aviv and in many other places in Israel.

Sturm, the chairman of the public committee that issued the original recommendation and himself a secular Jew, warned in an interview that secularists had little choice but to compromise with the haredim.

“Sooner or later there will be a haredi majority in this city,” he said. “Unless the secular Jews develop models of compromise with the haredim, they will be faced with the haredim enforcing their will on the secular population once they are in power.”

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