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Despite Shabbat crisis, strictly Orthodox stay loyal to Netanyahu

A dispute over rail engineering work could have brought down Israel's government

    Rabbi Yaakov Alter, the leader of the Ger Hassidim, a mysterious figure who exercises an iron control over his followers
    Rabbi Yaakov Alter, the leader of the Ger Hassidim, a mysterious figure who exercises an iron control over his followers Flash90

    It seemed for a short while over the weekend that Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition was on the brink of collapse.

    On Friday, Health Minister Yaakov Litzman had announced his resignation because of rail engineering work planned for Shabbat. It created the possibility that the Knesset members of United Torah Judaism and Shas – the strictly Orthodox factions – would withdraw from the coalition over the desecration of the holy day, leaving it without a majority.

    Forty-eight hours later, it was all over. Mr Litzman had left the cabinet but not the coalition.

    His entire team of advisors remained at the Health Ministry and he is expected back there soon as soon as legislation passed to allow him to control it as a deputy minister – a workaround that means he is not responsible for other cabinet decisions that contradict his religious beliefs.

    Meanwhile, Haredi politicians and Mr Netanyahu have agreed on a package of religious legislation that will do little to change the status quo.

    It will allow the Labour Minister to take “Jewish tradition” into account when issuing work permits on Shabbat – but that doesn’t necessarily mean he will.

    The Interior Minister, should he choose to do so, will be allowed to prevent local authorities from issuing Shabbat trading permits for shops, but it won’t affect businesses already open seven days a week.

    There is even agreement not to change the regulations allowing the football leagues to play on Shabbat. Crisis, if there ever was one, was averted at a surprisingly low price.

    It seems most likely that the weekend’s crisis was the result of internal rivalries within the Ger Hassidic court, which Mr Litzman unofficially represents in the Knesset.

    The leader of the Ger Hassidim, Rabbi Yaakov Alter, is a mysterious figure who never speaks in public and exercises an iron control over his followers, including the Health Minister.

    But while he has agreed for his own opaque reasons to Mr Litzman’s demotion, Israel’s strictly Orthodox leadership believes that it is in their interest to keep the partnership with Mr Netanyahu afloat for as long as possible.

    On Monday, Shas leader and Interior Minister Arye Deri said: “we are not preparing for elections; they will take place in November 2019.”

    No-one in Israeli politics currently believes this government will last its full term, but there is a growing sense that the next elections will lead to a very different political landscape.

    Mr Netanyahu may be prevented by legal constraints from running in them.

    Even if he does, polls are showing a small but steady shift of voters from the bloc of right-wing and religious parties to the centrist bloc of Labour, Yesh Atid and Kulanu.

    A coalition without Mr Netanyahu or without the ultra-Orthodox parties, or both, is a distinct possibility if current trends hold.

    No wonder they want to hold on to power for as long as possible.

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