A decision by the Transportation Ministry to ax dozens of bus lines that operate before the end of Shabbat came under furious criticism Thursday by politicians from across the spectrum, as well as from campaigners for more public transport on weekends.
It has emerged that more and more bus lines that for years operated on Shabbat with the agreement of local authorities are being canceled due to complaints to the Transportation Ministry from the religious public.
A ministry official also said that several dozen lines that were operating close to Shabbat have been axed to prevent desecration of the sabbath.
"We have chosen to consider the religious public where possible without compromising the routine of the [majority] secular public," the official said.
"People must understand that we are implementing government policy."
The head of the centrist Blue & White Benny Gantz vowed to reverse the decision should his party be victorious in the March 2 Knesset elections.
"The State of Israel is a Jewish state, not a halakhic state," Gantz said, referring to Jewish religious law.
"We will win [in the elections] and we will rectify this. Everyone can live here in their own way," he said.
The head of the right-wing secular Yisrael Beytenu party, Avigdor Liberman, branded the decision regressive "religious coercion."
The current minister is religious MK Bezalel Smotrich, a strong backer of Netanyahu and leader of the far-right National Union party.
"This is about power, bullying and religious coercion," Liberman said. "The man who wants to take us back to the time of King David, King Saul and Torah law, again proves that these are not merely empty declarations, but, unfortunately, deeds too," said Liberman, who has vowed Yisrael Beytenu will never join a coalition with the ultra-Orthodox parties.
"Smotrich, a member of a [party] that purports to represent the enlightened liberal right, has exposed its true face," he said.
"Yisrael Beytenu will demand as a precondition for joining the next coalition that the issue of public transportation and the opening of businesses on Shabbat will be the sole responsibility of local government."
Yisrael Beytenu MK Oded Forer, meanwhile, accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of entrusting the ministry to supporters of his bid to seek parliamentary immunity for his criminal indictments.
"The local authorities, whose leaders are elected by the public, are the ones who must decide, and not those who are appointed as a reward for supporting immunity for the prime minister," Forer said.
"Smotrich, who serves as minister without the trust of the public or the Knesset, is confident that he can run everyone's lives and take another step to make Israel into a halakhic state."
Roy Schwartz-Tichon, founder and chairman of the Noa Movement for public transportation on Shabbat, also accused Smotrich, who is a religious Jew, of forcing his own convictions on the rest of the population.
"Transportation Minister Smotrich is hijacking and cancelling the few [public transport options] that the Transportation Ministry itself saw as necessary to implement on Shabbat. This is ridiculous," he said.
"The transportation minister should act out of professional considerations for passenger welfare and not out of unrelated considerations," he said.
"In the past two months, the shuttles that have been scheduled for Shabbat transportation have shown the extent to which it is necessary for everyone in the State of Israel.
"When the lines are filled, bolstered and filled again and again, we will fight the hijacker and continue to lead the fight for transportation on Shabbat for the 80% of the Israeli public who want it, to allow everyone to choose how to spend their Shabbat."
Uri Keidar, director-general of the Be Free Israel movement, said: "Anyone who chooses an extreme revolutionary such as Smotrich for the post of transportation minister will not be able to hide behind him as he ignites a fire against the public in Israel.
"The damage to lines that [serve] the periphery before the end of Shabbat is the responsibility of Netanyahu and [Defense Minster Naftali] Bennett, first and foremost of the soldiers and members of the population who cannot afford their own cars," Keidar said.
"Anyone who thinks he can stop the Shabbat public transport train – which has already left the station - will discover in the upcoming elections that the public will punish him and anyone who supports it."
MK Itzik Shmuli, of Labor-Gesher-Meretz, also slammed the new policy.
"We will fight the decision in every way," he said, adding that this shift will directly affect "the soldiers, the elderly and the poor."
"Israel will not be [the predominantly ultra-Orthodox city of] Bnei Brak," he said.