Power Broker Gone Missing Amid Coronavirus: Israeli Health Minister's Fall From Grace

Israel's health minister ends a decade on the job with appallingly low ratings after focusing largely on his own causes and doing precious little during the worst health crisis the country's ever faced

Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati
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Outgoing health minister Yaakov Litzman photographed in the Knesset in 2019.
Outgoing health minister Yaakov Litzman photographed in the Knesset in 2019.Credit: Emil Salman
Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati

Yaakov Litzman is ending a decade-long term alternating between the roles of minister and deputy health minister, with public confidence in him at a nadir in almost every respect – his image, legal woes, job performance and values.

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Litzman has notified Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu he wished to step down and transition to the role of housing minister. Such a step would amount to a dismal end to a term where he in effect lost much of the confidence the public had in him when he first took the job.

In the interceding years from 2009 when he first became health czar, Litzman, a representative of the Ger rabbi, underwent a transformation from being one of the country’s more admired officials to donning the image of a functionary, who seemed to be motivated more by extraneous issues than matters at hand, aloof from issues under his department’s purview, and facing indictment recommendations from the police.

During his first term, Litzman was named head of the country’s health services. During this period he made frequent visits to medical institutions, including spot visits to hospitals. He significantly increased the numbers of available MRI machines; he fought for increasing the budget for the basket of state-subsidized drugs; he led several important reforms, including one in mental health, which had been stuck for years; welfare reform, free dental care for children, the medicinal cannabis revolution in which he increased the number of patients entitled to its use, and he reformed the system for labeling food items.

But in his last term, his image started to crack. Various media reports exposed Litzman as a party hack in charge of an unofficial and extensive system for providing preferential services and benefits to his associates.

Benjamin Netanyahu and Yaakov Litzman speak during during their visit to the coronavirus outbreak central response unit at the Israeli Ministry of Health, in Kiryat Malachi, March 1, 2020.Credit: Tsafrir Abayov/AP

In February 2018, Haaretz reported that Hadassah Hospital had evacuated three rooms for the Ger leader, Rabbi Yaakov Alter, and his entourage, with one patient being moved to a hallway so he could be accommodated. Litzman, a Ger Hasid, was present when the rooms were evacuated.

Rabbi Alter was assigned a personal doctor and a male nurse. According to hospital sources, at least 30 patients were waiting in the emergency room for a bed at the time. Litzman personally chose the rooms to be evacuated for the rabbi, in full cooperation with the hospital’s director, Prof. Ze’ev Rothstein.

Hadassah doctors and other staff were not surprised by the report. “Litzman did what he wanted to at Hadassah, backed by Rothstein” a hospital source said. Requests by Litzman’s associates to provide medical treatment for their relatives became a matter of routine One doctor said he receives calls every week or two from Litzman’s people, asking to treat an ill or hospitalized person close to them.

Another doctor said she too received many calls from Ger Hasidim. Another senior official said that Litzman calls not just doctors and department heads but the medical director of Hadassah, who turns to nurses so they can look after the patient in question.

In March 2019, Haaretz published an investigative story alleging how Litzman recruited the health system to help treat the rabbi’s wife, Shoshana Alter. According to sources in the health system, senior doctors, including department heads, were mobilized for months in order to provide personal care for Mrs. Alter, who had a rare and serious condition.

The devoted care included preferred hospitalization amenities, home visits by senior experts from three leading hospitals, and jumping many patients on a queue for tests.

A source at Hadassah said that Litzman’s bureau had become particularly bothersome in the past two years. Not a day goes by at the medical director’s office without a request for preferential treatment or special attention, or a complaint by a hospitalized Ger Hasid.

Australian Malka Leifer is brought to a courtroom in Jerusalem, February 27, 2018.Credit: Mahmoud Illean/AP

In the same period, it became known that police were investigating Litzman. In August they recommended indicting him for bribery, witness tampering, fraud and breach of trust in two separate cases. In one he is alleged to have offered employees benefits if they prevented the closure of a restaurant whose owner was a close associate.

The other case involves a suspicion that he tried to prevent psychiatrists from recommending the extradition of alleged child molester Malka Leifer to Australia where she has been accused of perpetrating dozens of sex offenses against minors.

Litzman has also been accused of having inappropriate ties to tobacco companies. He was also accused of mishandling a 2017 crisis with Hadassah’s pediatric haemato-oncological department when nine senior doctors resigned to the dismay of families whose children were in their care.

Added to these issues is the latest coronavirus crisis, which has bolstered Litzman’s image as largely interested in looking after the ultra-Orthodox community and its functionaries, even at the expense of the general public’s health.

His also failed to persuade leaders of his own Haredi community to comply with his ministry’s restrictions to close yeshivot and schools and suspend large public prayer gatherings at synagogues. Not long after viral infections picked up rapidly in largely ultra-Orthodox communities.

Litzman’s image was further damaged by reports he had personally violated social distancing rules by participating in public worship services.

Litzman at the Sheba Medical Center, April 2, 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Litzman was not perceived as someone who was managing the crisis. Whether deliberately or against his wishes, in the early stages of the crisis, and particularly after the March 2 election, it became clear that Prime Minister Netanyahu was managing the crisis, with the ministry’s director-general, Moshe Bar Siman Tov.

Litzman was notablly absent in many of their public appearances. “He’s being skipped over in all directions” said a source familiar with the way things are being managed. But people close to Litzman say he i knows very well how to insist on things that are important to him. “If the situation is the way it is,”,they say, “that’s because it’s his choice.”

However, the sources close to Litzman said he had pushed for closing the borders to travel to and from several countries, while Netanyahu had hesitated to halt air traffic to and from the United States. This was not evident in Netanyahu’s media declarations when Litzman’s presence seemed to be forced and he did not appear to show the same determination Netanyahu and others showed in the initial stages of the campaign to curb the spread of the virus. Litzman’s public presence waned until it was learned that he had contracted the virus and was in quarantine. He then completely disappeared from public view.

This week Litzman was reported to have recovered from the virus but a few days ago he notified Netanyahu that he was considering leaving his post. If he does so, his past achievements will pale in comparison to his recent conduct and the gravity of the cases he’s allegedly involved in, which has led to allegations that his devotion to the Ger Hasidic sect may be greater than that which he shows for his role as Israel’s health minister.

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