Criticized for Coronavirus Response, Israel's Health Minister Seeks a Different Portfolio

United Torah Judaism Chairman Litzman is eyeing the Housing Ministry in the Netanyahu-Gantz unity government now in the making

Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz
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Yaakov Litzman at a press conference at the Health Ministry in Jerusalem, March 8, 2020.
Yaakov Litzman at a press conference at the Health Ministry in Jerusalem, March 8, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman
Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz

Israel’s Health Minister Yaakov Litzman told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday that he plans to resign from his position, two days after announcing that he is weighing the option.

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Litzman was heavily criticized for his handling of the coronavirus crisis. In its early stages, he excluded the ultra-Orthodox community from the country’s social distancing regulations, allowing public ritual bath houses and synagogues to remain open, even promising that the messiah would come and put an end to the epidemic.

Litzman said that in the next government, taking shape through an agreement between Kahol Lavan Chairman Benny Gantz and Prime Minister Netanyahu, he wants to take over the housing portfolio. Sources close to Litzman, who represents Ger Hassidim in Knesset as head of the United Torah Judaism party, said on Thursday he would demand extensive authority if he moves to the Housing Ministry.

Litzman reportedly did not adhere to the public safety guidelines that his own ministry issued. He reportedly prayed in a group, refused to have his temperature taken and hid the results of the epidemiological test performed on his phone. Litzman denied the reports of people who said they had prayed with him.

Earlier this month, Litzman himself contracted the coronavirus, together with his wife. Following his diagnosis, Netanyahu, Health Ministry director general Moshe Bar Siman Tov and head of the ministry’s public health services Professor Seigal Sadetzky all entered self-quarantine.

The possibility of Litzman leading the Housing Ministry had arisen throughout coalition negotiations between Likud and the right-wing bloc and Kahol Lavan. Among associates of the Gerrer Rebbe, the Hassidic sect’s leader, views on the matter conflicted. Some supported Litzman continuing in his role at the health ministry, but others believed his time there had run its course, and that he could better aid the ultra-Orthodox public from within the Housing Ministry.

In August the police recommended indicting Litzman for bribery, suborning witnesses, fraud and breach of trust in two cases.

In one case Litzman allegedly abused his status and position to pressure two psychiatrists to issue opinions that would prevent the extradition of Malka Leifer, a school principal charged with sexually assaulting underage girls in Australia. In another case Litzman allegedly offered subordinates in the ministry benefits to stop them from closing down a restaurant owned by one of his associates.

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