Kristine L Ming

PM backs away from authorizing Saturday soccer

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has delayed giving a formal permit to allow professional soccer matches to be played on Shabbat, following pressure from the Haredi political parties and elements in Bayit Yehudi.

Approving the blanket permit was supposed to have been part of the agreement two weeks ago between Netanyahu, United Torah Judaism and Shas to keep the Haredi parties from deepening the coalition crisis over Shabbat.

The prime minister agreed that laws preventing municipal authorities from allowing businesses to open on Shabbat and limiting infrastructure maintenance work on the Sabbath would be advanced, while the Haredi parties agreed not to oppose the permit for soccer on Shabbat.

UTJ and Shas have apparently retreated somewhat from this agreement, however, and requested that Netanyahu delay issuing the permit by another three months, a step he took on Tuesday.

Pressure was also brought to bear by Bayit Yehudi MK Bezalel Smotrich, who called on Netanyahu not to sign the permit, and by his party colleague Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel, who also spoke out against the move.

Professional soccer matches have been staged on Saturdays since the establishment of the state, but this practice was challenged in 2015 by the Movement for a Jewish and Democratic State, which filed a petition to the High Court of Justice, saying that playing games on the Sabbath violated the rights of religious and traditional players.

The Law for Work and Rest prohibits employing Jews on Shabbat, and those of other religions on their day of rest, although it provides for some allowances such as security needs, requirements for hospitals, and culture, sport and hospitality industries.
However, in a recent hearing on the issue, the High Court sided with the movement, which has collected the signatures of 300 professional soccer players in support of its petition, saying that the law appeared to be on their side.

But the Law for Work and Rest also allows for a blanket permit to be issued by a special ministerial committee comprising the prime minister, labor and social services minister and religious minister.

Issuing a blanket permit in this way would be sufficient to legally authorize Saturday soccer, the High Court said, but that without it, it would likely rule in favor of the petitioners, a step that would cause widespread consternation among the soccer-loving Israeli public.

In order to stall this permit process, Shas chairman and Interior Minister Arye Deri obtained an agreement from the movement to freeze its petition, thus giving Netanyahu more time to find a solution.

The state is now asking the High Court to delay any decision on the matter, while the issue is further deliberated.

The failure to issue the permit at this stage was panned by Yesh Atid chairman MK Yair Lapid, who said that if Netanyahu does not sign off on it, that would constitute “shameful surrender to the Haredim at the expense of people who need to go to work during the week and soldiers, for whom this [the Sabbath] is the only opportunity to watch soccer.”

A spokesman for the movement said, however, that the organization hopes Netanyahu will look out for “the good of soccer, soccer players and Sabbath-observant soccer fans, and will not force players to violate the Sabbath.”

He added that a solution for all those involved is possible, principally by delaying kickoff times on Saturday till after the Sabbath ends, or bringing games forward on Fridays, before the Sabbath begins.

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