Israeli minister quits coalition after row over Sabbath work
Israel's health minister, who heads a powerful ultra-orthodox political party in Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition, resigned yesterday after the country's railways had carried out maintenance work on the Sabbath, when all labour is strictly prohibited by Jewish law.
Ultra-orthodox parties have provided Mr Netanyahu with support for his coalition, while the government gives large budgets to the minority community.
They have traditionally acted as kingmakers in Israel's fractious coalition-building and have in the past threatened to topple coalition governments by robbing them of their majority.
Yaakov Litzman's resignation doesn't immediately threaten Mr Netanyahu's coalition, but it may set off a chain reaction that would.
The issue of desecration of the Sabbath has triggered crisis in the past and highlights the cultural chasm between Israel's ultra-orthodox minority and its secular majority.
Much of Israel, including public transport, comes to a halt at sundown on Friday for the Sabbath, but few Israelis strictly observe the day of rest.
Many restaurants, cinemas, sporting events and national parks operate and in secular bastions, such as Tel Aviv, even some corner stores and shopping centres are open.
Mr Littman said the work conducted publicly on the railway prompted him to resign. He said that "as a minister in Israel, I can't maintain the ministerial responsibility" of Sabbath "desecration" that contradicts the "holy values of the Jewish people".
While Mr Litzman said the weekend maintenance work on the railway was not warranted, Israel's railways authority says it must carry out work on Saturday so that it does not disrupt essential transportation for thousands of Israelis during the work week. Railway and some other public works have occurred for years on the Sabbath.
Mr Litzman's resignation could pressure the other two ultra-Orthodox coalition partners to squeeze concessions from Mr Netanyahu to prove to their constituents that they respect the Sabbath as much as the former health minister.
Mr Netanyahu may be hesitant to offer anything perceived as being too generous for fear of alienating secular voters at a time when opposition party Yesh Atid has been gaining traction in polls.
Mr Netanyahu said the Sabbath was important to all Israelis - but so was the need for "safe and continuous" transportation.