JERUSALEM - Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's new coalition government faced its first mini-crisis yesterday over working on the Sabbath, a sensitive issue that splits many secular and religious Israelis.
Ehud Olmert, the minister of industry and trade, ordered an indefinite suspension of the job carried out by government inspectors who enforce laws banning work on the Sabbath. The ministry planned to review the policy and might formulate new guidelines.
The decision provoked strong protests from religious groups, including the National Religious Party, a key member of Sharon's right-wing coalition, which was formed just a month ago after national elections.
"This is a harsh blow to the sanctity of the Sabbath and a trampling of the status quo, which has been upheld since the establishment of the state" in 1948, Effi Eitam, leader of the party and the housing minister, told Israel radio. He said it would be difficult for his party, with its constituency of Orthodox Jews, to remain in the government if the decision stands.
Much of Israel shuts down on the Sabbath, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. The degree of observance varies.
In ultra-Orthodox communities in Jerusalem, residents do not drive, use a telephone or turn on televisions or other electric appliances. In secular Tel Aviv, attitudes are much more relaxed, and some restaurants, nightclubs and movie theaters open in defiance of the law.
The actual law banning work on the Sabbath is not affected by Olmert's decision to review the role of the inspectors. However, with no inspectors to hand out fines, some businesses in secular areas might be encouraged to open.
Religious and secular Jews in Israel are sharply divided on many fundamental issues, and the current friction could be the first of many such battles in Sharon's government.
Sharon and his secular, rightist Likud Party have traditionally been allied with religious parties, including ultra-Orthodox groups that were part of his previous government.
But Sharon dropped the ultra-Orthodox parties when forming his new government, and the second-largest faction in his four-party coalition is Shinui, a secular party that seeks to scale back the role of religion in Israeli civic life.
Shinui saw its fortunes soar in the January elections as the party leader, Yosef Lapid, a former journalist, called for an end to "religious coercion" and pledged to seek the removal of privileges afforded ultra-Orthodox Jews.
The party wants to allow commerce on the Sabbath and wants public transportation to operate. The party also favors permitting civil marriages, not now allowed, and seeks to end the exemption from military service that ultra-Orthodox Jews receive.
Olmert, a member of Sharon's party, was, until last month, mayor of Jerusalem for almost a decade, a post that required a close working relationship with the city's large ultra-Orthodox community, which voted for him in big numbers.
"As a citizen of Israel, I think Mr. Olmert is ignoring part of our law book," said Rabbi Avraham Ravitz, a member of Parliament and leader of United Torah Judaism, an ultra-Orthodox party supported by Jews of European descent.
"And as a religious person, this is a big disappointment," he said. "It is one of our most important laws as a Jewish state."
The government inspectors enforcing the Sabbath laws increased their work in recent years, when Shlomo Benizri of Shas, an ultra-Orthodox party, was the minister overseeing their activities.
Inspectors visited 1,769 stores and gave 500 fines in 2000, the newspaper Haaretz reported.
Haya Peri, spokeswoman for the Industry and Trade Ministry, said Olmert wanted to study the issue but did not know how long this would take or what changes he might make.
The dispute does not pose an immediate threat to Sharon's coalition, which controls 68 seats in the 120-member Parliament. The National Religious Party has six seats, and even if it left the coalition, Sharon would still have a narrow majority with 62 seats.
However, the far-right National Union, another coalition member, also strongly opposes the move, and Sharon's own party also has members who are sure to oppose it.