JERUSALEM (JTA) — Planned repairs to Israel railways on Shabbat were canceled at the last minute, delaying thousands of morning commuters and fueling a political crisis.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday called off the repair work Israel Railways was slated to do at 20 sites.
Haredi Orthodox political parties had called for the work stoppage and threatened to bolt the ruling coalition if the work was not cancelled, which could have toppled the government.
At the weekly Cabinet meeting Sunday morning, Netanyahu said: “This crisis is completely unnecessary. There was no need to reach this situation. There has been a status quo in the State of Israel for many years; we honor it. When work needs to be done on Shabbat – it is done, as it was last Shabbat on the Ayalon highway. When it does not need to be done on Shabbat – it is not done. This has been our guiding principle; this is the principle that will continue to guide us.”
The crisis comes a week after the haredi parties threatened to bolt the government over construction work on the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv high-speed train line, deemed essential to be undertaken on Shabbat.
In a statement issued Saturday night, the prime minister blamed Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, a political challenger from within his Likud party, for fomenting the crisis.
“This is an initiated and unnecessary crisis on the part of Minister Yisrael Katz designed to undermine relations between the Prime Minister and the ultra-orthodox public or alternatively to damage the image of the Prime Minister among the general public. From the outset there was no need to initiate work on Shabbat. It would have been possible to carry out the work on other dates that would not have harmed the ultra-orthodox public, passengers or soldiers,” the statement said.
“Yisrael Katz is holding passengers and soldiers as hostages in an unnecessary and artificial crisis that he initiated after having failed in his attempt to take over the Likud institutions. The Prime Minister is outraged over Minister Katz’s cynical attack on passengers and soldiers and is doing his utmost to minimize the damage to these publics in the next 24 hours.”
Having been started Friday afternoon, the repair work resumed Saturday night and extended into the Sunday morning rush hour, causing major traffic jams and stranding commuters who rely on the railway system.
Sunday morning is when most soldiers home for the weekend return to their bases, further crowding public transportation. Buses were used to shuttle soldiers who normally take the trains to their bases. Netanyahu also ordered the Transportation Ministry to put extra buses on the Tel Aviv-Haifa route, which was closed Sunday as infrastructure work continued.
Rumors circulated Saturday night that Netanyahu would fire Katz, though it appeared by Sunday morning that Katz would remain in his position.
Katz reportedly plans to challenge Netanyahu for leadership of the party in the next election cycle more than three years from now, unless the government falls sooner. Katz is head of the party secretariat, in charge of all party operations, and reportedly has attempted to weaken Netanyahu from within the party.