‘Metro law’ in limbo as opposition seeks to influence election plan

Likud-led opposition lawmakers appear to have seized plans for an Israeli subway system – the country’s most ambitious public transport project – as a bargaining chip in ongoing disagreements with the coalition over the upcoming election plan.

Israel is likely facing another round of national elections, its fifth in three and a half years, after lawmakers passed the first reading of a bill dissolving Israel’s 24th Knesset in the early hours of Tuesday morning. The law dissolving the Knesset is expected to be finally read at midnight on Wednesday.

According to Hebrew-language media reports, Transport Minister Merav Michaeli spent Tuesday’s day persuading the Arab-majority opposition Joint List party to back and pass the so-called metro law.

The Metro Act would provide oversight and funding for a new metro system being built in central Israel; half of the network has already been approved.

Until this week, Knesset members were relatively united behind the project, which aims to solve Israel’s long-term traffic problems, take cars off the roads and help commuters.

The program is Israel’s most ambitious infrastructure project, aiming to connect Tel Aviv’s commuter zones to significantly reduce traffic. However, because most of it runs through already densely built-up areas, it is possibly one of the most complex global engineering projects. Other subway systems were built before the urban areas rather than after.

The Likud had previously indicated its support for the law, but it was one of the bills that fell by the wayside after Monday’s opposition-coalition agreements. Lawmakers spent the day debating issues such as the date of the next election – the opposition prefers October 25, while the coalition wants November 1, a week later, as the voting date – and what legislation would be passed before Parliament dissolves.

It was agreed that a bill that would bar an indicted person – like former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – from forming a government would also not go ahead.

And the Likud signaled that it plans to vote against two bills crucial for Israel to join the US visa-free travel program. This is intended to hamper the coalition’s attempt to push ahead with the hugely popular initiative on the eve of the election season. The Visa Waiver Program allows citizens of participating countries to visit the United States without applying for and obtaining a visa, which takes time and money and is by no means guaranteed.

The empty assembly hall of the Israeli Knesset in Jerusalem on June 27, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

According to Kan, the opposition prefers October 25, when yeshiva students — key voters for the Likud bloc, which is made up in part of ultra-Orthodox parties — are on vacation. But as of Tuesday night, a majority of Knesset members are leaning toward deciding on Nov. 1, Kan reported.

Earlier Tuesday, the US ambassador made a rare request for Israeli lawmakers to support visa legislation, and the embassy reached out to a senior Likud MP, Yariv Levin, asking the opposition party not to vote against the bills.

The clearest indication that the Likud was also tampering with the Metro Law to ensure its preferred election schedule was Yoav Kish, telling the party in the Knesset on Tuesday, according to Kan: “I’ll tell you quite simply, the election date is important. We want success. If you want the subway, I’m ready to persuade [the Likud] and say that for [the election date]we will [finalize] The subway.”

Under the metro plan, about 45 kilometers (28 miles) of track and 31 stations would connect Tel Aviv, Rehovot, Nes Ziona, Lod, Be’er Yaakov, Rishon Lezion, Holon and Ramat Hasharon for a line called M1 South. Another line, M3, would provide 39 kilometers of track with 25 stations, connecting Bat Yam, Holon, Tel Aviv, Ramat Gan, Petah Tikva and Or Yehuda.

It is not expected that passengers will be able to travel on these lines in 2032 at the earliest.

Transport Minister Merav Michaeli visits the new Allenby subway station on the red line in Tel Aviv, June 23, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

As The Times of Israel previously reported, another northern stretch of the planned network has caused difficulties that would push back connections to Modi’in, Ra’anana, Kfar Saba and Hod Hasharon until at least 2040.

According to Kan, Michaeli promised the Joint List on Tuesday that it would support the construction of a metro line in an Arab-majority area known as the Triangle, made up of cities like Taybe, Tira and Kafr Qasim. But the Likud, as the leading opposition party, refuses to put the law up for discussion.

Michaeli said on Twitter it was up to the opposition to explain their reasoning and “they must be held accountable for why the national project that can help us escape traffic jams was stopped because of petty politics.”

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett also spoke on Twitter on Monday beg the opposition not to scrap the subway law. “Don’t deny Israel a subway that is so important. Israel is a modern country that doesn’t have a metro like New York, Paris or London. That is why we suffer from endless traffic jams. There is no right and left here,” he wrote.

“If the law doesn’t pass, it will be delayed for many years and all of our children will pay the price,” he added.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid speak during a Knesset debate June 27, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Until this week, the legislation was expected to have bipartisan support, as the metro is seen as a key element in the development of effective public transport systems.

So far, the 2022 state budget has allocated NIS 6 billion (US$1.8 billion) for the construction of the subway system. The total bill for the project is estimated by the Bank of Israel at NIS 150 billion ($43 billion). Half of that is expected to come from the regular state budget and the other half from as yet “unbudgeted sources”, with most of the money needed between 2026 and 2036.

There is already a plan that communities connecting to the subway are expected to contribute funds towards the cost of the project starting next year, and that property owners near the lines should also pay higher taxes to reflect the benefits that they have will derive from it.

Carrie Keller-Lynn, Jacob Magid, and Lazar Berman contributed to this report.