Football in Israel has always been a continuation of politics on the playing field. In the past, before privatisation, the teams belonged to political parties, and were used for drumming up support during elections. In recent years, Arab-Jewish hatred has found its way onto the pitch, particularly in the matches of Beitar Jerusalem, the team supported by many senior Likud politicians, including Binyamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, which is much criticised for never having fielded an Arab player. The legal fracas over “Shabbat football” has also been politically motivated.

In the past the “Shabbat Wars” were mainly a local affair, and have been fought between the secular and ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi) communities of Jerusalem since the early 1950s, usually over the opening of roads and restaurants in the city. When the first cinema in central Jerusalem began screening films on Friday nights, in 1986, thousands clashed on the street outside and were dispersed by police using tear-gas. On August 15th, the secular camp achieved a victory with the opening of the first multiplex to operate in Jerusalem on the Sabbath, sparking off another round of religious battles in the city. Black-garbed ultra-Orthodox men grappled with police, threw stones at vehicles and besieged the Israeli Television building.
With a stroke of the pen the economics minister can exempt any company from the law prohibiting employment on the weekend, and so could have solved the football issue. However the current minister, Arye Deri, is leader of the ultra-religious Shas party. There was no way that he was going to sign off on desecration of the Sabbath. Neither was the culture and sport minister, a rising Likud star named Miri Regev, going to help. A former military censor, Ms Regev has become a leading warrior in Israel’s culture wars, threatening to deny government funding for productions that she thinks “deride” Zionism and saying proudly in a recent interview that she “never read Chekhov and nearly never went to the theatre”. Moving football away from the Sabbath could certainly win her votes among Likud’s more traditional wing.
Jerusalem’s ambitious mayor, Nir Barkat, who sees himself a future prime minister, won two elections supported mainly by secular and moderately religious residents. Now that he is planning his campaign for national leadership, set to begin once Mr Netanyahu finally vacates the stage, he is pivoting to placate the ultra-religious camp. Last month he approved heavy municipal fines for the handful of groceries that keep open through the Sabbath in central Jerusalem. Like Mr Netanyahu, and another mayor-turned-prime minister, Ehud Olmert, Mr Barkat sees an alliance with the ultra-Orthodox as a path to power. Restrictions on football and shopping will be a small price for him to pay.