Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman has garnered much praise for the job he has done in his post. In practice, he is the country's health minister because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has matters other than the country's health system to tend to, officially holds the health portfolio.
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In an interview with TheMarker, Litzman, who is from the ultra-Orthodox United Judaism party, spoke about a range of subjects, including issues of special importance to the Haredim - the ultra-Orthodox. Some secular readers may not like his take on these issues, such as cuts to child allowances (he's against them) and boosting the low workplace participation rate among Haredi men (which he says is not necessary). "Nowhere is it written that males need to work. It's good enough if the wife works," he said.
Litzman praised the job Netanyahu and the Finance Ministry have done, admitting that as a member of the current government, he may not be entirely objective. "I have to say that the number of things that have happened in this government's term is amazing. There were a lot of revolutionary steps, a lot of reforms. I think, all told, the situation is good," he said summing up things as the country heads for the election of a new government on January 22.
Detached from reality?
Is he perhaps detached from reality? When it was suggested that the public has a sense that the economic situation has actually deteriorated, he responded: "If I were finance minister, I would deal with things differently when it comes to the problems of weaker segments of society, the housing situation, [limits on] senior executive salaries."
"For example, at the time of the demonstrations in Tel Aviv," a reference to demonstrations that erupted last year over the cost of living and other issues of social justice, "I advised the prime minister to lower the value added tax on housing for several years. Maybe not on all housing. You don't need to help someone buying a NIS 5 million apartment, but it should be done for people buying a three- or three-and-a-half-room apartment, young couples, for example."
Asked about whether he and his party colleagues would prefer to join a coalition headed by Netanyahu in the next government, he responded wryly that he would prefer to do what is good for himself.
When pressed as to what that would mean, he said: "I don't know. You have to understand that this was a good government term, and at the moment I don't see anyone else that can form a government." He also acknowledged that when it comes to making such a decision "the situation is not in our hands, but in the hands of the Council of Torah Sages."
One task the new government will face is cutting NIS 15 billion from the 2013 budget. Among the possible cuts are child allowances, which are of particular interest in the Haredi community where many have large families. To such a scenario, Litzman replied: "That's one of the things they wanted to do a few months ago when Netanyahu said he didn't have a majority to pass the budget. And one of the reasons there was no majority was that I would not have a hand in it."
"All told, child allowances are NIS 2 billion and here we're dealing with a shortfall of NIS 15 million," he said. When asked whether the NIS 2 billion should be transferred from the defense budget, Litzman declined to respond, remarking that before an election no one discloses detailed plans.
Asked why the Haredi community did not participate in last year's cost-of-living protests, the deputy health minister said: "We have problems that make it difficult for us to demonstrate. You don't see us in the streets."
To the suggestion that perhaps it was because some of the criticism of the protesters was directed at the ultra-Orthodox community, Litzman replied: "I don't think that's the reason. Even if everyone wanted to go out to work, there wouldn't be work for all of them."
"On the other hand," Litzman said, referring to the situation in a Haredi Tel Aviv suburb, "Bnei Brak is not afflicted with unemployment. Why? Because one parent works." But when challenged with the fact that only 45% of adult Haredi males are employed (rather than engaging in full-time religious studies ), Litzman said: "Nowhere is it written that males need to work. It's good enough if the wife works."
"It's absurd for everyone to work, because who will educate the children? Who will look after them?" Litzman said. "If you go out onto the street and say that both spouses need to work, everyone would disagree. Such a situation is impossible. Someone has to devote themselves to the children so they are not thrown into the street."
Litzman was asked whether he is satisfied with health care in the country. It was pointed out to him that comparisons of data from other developed countries show that the state of health care here is excellent. On the other hand, if you ask Israelis for their opinion of the system, they say it is not good. For his part, Litzman said the state of medical care here is unequivocally good.
Upgrading the health system
"First of all," he said, "you have to understand that we are good. How do we know? Because the whole world wants to enter into agreements with us. It's no secret that a lot of things were neglected here for years. And only during my time did we start to move them forward. For example, outlying areas of the country, where unfortunately life expectancy is three or four years less than in the center of the country. That's unacceptable. So I introduced MRIs and front-line emergency rooms at each hospital."
And when asked to explain why, if such wonderful things have been done, the public still has bitter feelings, Litzman said there is a problem with long waits for medical care, "but I have added [hospital] beds, which had not been done for the previous ten years."
Average hospital occupancy is 90%, he said, but it varies during the course of the year and there are times, during the flu season, for example, when it is higher. "But you can't build a department that will stand empty during the year."
And would Litzman like to continue serving as deputy health minister in the next government or would he prefer another position? "Health. Absolutely," was his response.
Many state-funded ultra-Orthodox schools don't teach the state's core curriculum [including math, science, English and civics] - something that is seen as a threat to the economic future of the country. When asked about this, Litzman said: "Really? So take myself as an example. I didn't study core subjects. So what? Is that bad? Did [Knesset Finance Committee Chairman Moshe] Gafni [of United Torah Judaism] study core subjects?"
And when it comes to Haredi adult males who engage in religious studies rather than working, Litzman said: "There is an ironclad rule that says someone who wishes to study must study." It's impossible to change that world view, he explained. "If someone wants to work, he can go into the army or wherever he wants. I don't have a problem with that, but you should know that a lot of Haredim do work."