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Sunday, March 23, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Israeli Franchisee Fights To Stay Open On Sabbath

AP

TEL AVIV - When the Ramat Aviv mall opens for business, the devout multimillionaire who owns it says, all the shops inside will be run according to Jewish dietary law and shut on the Jewish Sabbath.

But the owner of the McDonald's inside, who signed a 20-year contract with the mall's previous owner, says that isn't good for business. He plans to defy mall owner Lev Leviev.

"It will end up in the courts," said Omri Padan, who owns 37 McDonald's chains in Israel.

The dispute is the latest in the country's tug of war over the role of religion in the Jewish state.

"I see this as part of our war to run like a free business in a Western country, like in Europe and the U.S.," Padan said. He noted that Ramat Aviv was one of the most secular neighborhoods in Israel.

The dispute erupted several weeks ago when Leviev, who recently bought a controlling stake in the Africa-Israel firm that is building the mall, said he would operate it in accordance with his religious beliefs.

That meant adhering to strict dietary laws - including ones that forbid mixing dairy and meat, such as on a cheeseburger - and closing from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath.

But Padan said he had a 20-year contract with Africa-Israel before Leviev bought the company, allowing him to operate on the Sabbath as long as the movie theater in the mall did the same. He said the theater planned to resist Leviev as well.

Tensions have been growing between secular Jews and the increasingly powerful religious minority, particularly since religious parties won a record 23 out of 120 parliament seats in May elections and received powerful positions in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Cabinet.

The religious parties want stronger enforcement of religious laws. Many secular Israelis feel there is already too much - for example, the religious establishment has a monopoly over marriage and divorce.

Padan's has been one of the leading voices against the religious trend, especially after he refused Labor Ministry orders - based on a rarely invoked law - to stop employing Jewish youth at one of his outlets on the Sabbath.

Recently, Padan won backing from Tel Aviv's deputy mayor, Dan Darin, who is from the secular Meretz Party.

Darin said he would try to put economic pressure on Leviev to reverse his decision and let the Ramat Aviv mall operate on the Sabbath. City Hall could impede Africa-Israel's efforts to expand the mall or other properties in Tel Aviv, he said.

"Leviev is doing nothing illegal," Darin said. "At the same time, he shouldn't be surprised if we also try to exert influence through economic power."

Since the dispute first was aired, Africa-Israel stock has dropped by 20 percent. Company spokeswoman Anat Weiss said it was too early to judge the performance of the company under Leviev, and promised that "the company will be run in accordance with economic considerations."

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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