Liberman: He must not stay on in next government

Center, left MKs demand Litzman’s ouster amid allegations he flaunted guidelines

Yesh Atid and Meretz heads urge Netanyahu to fire health minister, who has the virus, after report says he attended prayer services in breach of rules on preventing contagion

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Then-health minister Yaakov Litzman at a press conference about the coronavirus at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, March 11, 2020. (Flash90)
Then-health minister Yaakov Litzman at a press conference about the coronavirus at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, March 11, 2020. (Flash90)

Senior opposition lawmakers on Thursday night demanded that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fire Health Minister Yaakov Litzman amid allegations that the ultra-Orthodox lawmaker flaunted his own office’s guidelines by attending group prayer services in the days before he contracted the virus.

“If Bibi does not fire Litzman from his post tonight, this government does not have the moral authority to manage the coronavirus crisis,” Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid tweeted, referring to the prime minister by his nickname.

Lapid’s fellow faction member Yoel Razvozov described “Netanyahu’s logic” in keeping Litzman on as minister in a tweet of his own: “To dismiss a million people as a result of the Health Ministry guidelines — not a problem. To dismiss the person in charge of the same guidelines after he violated them and endangered human life — out of the question.”

Meretz chairman Nitzan Horowitz wrote in a statement that “a health minister who violates the guidelines he himself signs, and acts based on corrupt considerations that seriously damage [the public’s] health, must not be allowed to remain in office for another day.”

On Friday, Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman said Litzman must not serve in the post in the next government. “We don’t know how the negotiations between Likud and Blue and White will end,” said Liberman. “But it is clear that Litzman cannot continue as minister of health.”

Democratic Camp leader Nitzan Horowitz, at a press conference in Tel Aviv, August 12, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The Movement for Quality Government said that a minister who so blatantly violates his own office’s guidelines “has no place in a government… and definitely not an emergency one.”

“When the minister himself violates instructions, they no longer have any validity — moral or legally speaking — in the eyes of the public,” the group said.

In addition, a petition calling for Litzman’s ouster that went online Saturday had accumulated nearly 34,000 signatures by late Thursday night.

Litzman’s positive test overnight Wednesday has forced almost all the Israeli politicians, officials, and health chiefs who are leading the country’s struggle against the pandemic, from Netanyahu on down, to enter precautionary quarantine.

Earlier Thursday, Channel 12 quoted an unnamed senior minister accusing Litzman of having “put all of our lives in danger” by flouting the restrictions.

Litzman, 71, who participated in the evening’s cabinet meeting on the virus threat via videoconference from his home, was said to be in good health. His wife Chava has also been infected.

Witnesses told Channel 12 on Thursday that the health minister, who heads the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, prayed at the home of a fellow member of his Gur Hasidic sect last Saturday — three days after government guidelines went into effect barring services from being held indoors. The witness said that while worshipers sought to practice social distancing, they were all together inside for over an hour and a half.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, with Health Ministry director-general Moshe Bar Siman Tov, center, and Health Minister Yaakov Litzman at a press conference about the coronavirus COVID-19, at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on March 11, 2020. (Flash90)

On Monday, after the guidelines had further intensified, barring any group prayer services from being held, whether inside or outdoors, Litzman was again allegedly spotted praying at a synagogue just outside of his home.

“My father prays every day at the ‘Beit Israel’ synagogue in the Ezrat Torah neighborhood [in Jerusalem] and told me that on Monday he prayed there together with Litzman,” another witness told Channel 12.

Litzman’s office flatly denied the accusations, and insisted that the minister has adhered to Health Ministry directives, including those relating to prayers.

Litzman also refused to have his temperature taken when interviewed on Channel 12 earlier this week, sparking the concern of those in the studio that the minister was seeking to hide the fact that he was experiencing symptoms.

The unnamed senior minister who spoke to the network said Litzman had “put all of our lives in danger.”

Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman gets his flu shot at the Efrata Elementary School in Jerusalem on October 26, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

At a cabinet meeting 10 days ago, Litzman reportedly urged Netanyahu to allow synagogues to stay open. “As long as you have less than 10 people and keep more than 2 meters apart, I don’t see a need to change the instructions,” Litzman said, according to a leaked transcript.

But Netanyahu was adamant. “There is a need. There is no choice. Synagogues have been the largest sources of infection, together with clubs and shops. It’s a huge source of infection,” he said. “There is no choice.

Unnamed officials at Litzman’s ministry on Thursday also charged that he is at least partly to blame for the spiraling situation in Bnei Brak, saying that the minister’s refusal to institute restrictions on movement before the Purim holiday last month enabled mass celebrations to go ahead, which allowed the virus to spread. They also slammed his refusal to close yeshivas and mikvehs “until it was too late.”

Litzman has already come under fire over the past year over allegations that he illicitly pressured officials in his office to change their psychiatric reports in order to deem alleged serial pedophile Malka Leifer unfit for extradition to Australia. Leifer has ties to Litzman’s Gur sect. Last July, police recommended that the minister be indicted in the Leifer case.

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