Former health minister hints he wasn’t very involved in pandemic response

Former health minister hints he wasn’t very involved in pandemic response

Yaakov Litzman, now housing minister, says he was kept in the loop ‘here and there’ as experts presented opinions to decision makers

Newly appointed housing minister and former health minister Yaakov Litzman, at his installation ceremony at the Housing Ministry in Jerusalem on May 18, 2020. (Olivier FitoussiFlash90)
Newly appointed housing minister and former health minister Yaakov Litzman, at his installation ceremony at the Housing Ministry in Jerusalem on May 18, 2020. (Olivier FitoussiFlash90)

Former health minister Yaakov Litzman appeared to admit Tuesday that he had not been very involved in the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, which involved applying strict lockdown measures that brought the economy to an almost total standstill.

Asked in an interview about how ministry staff brought recommendations to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the National Security Council, which spearheaded handling the outbreak, Litzman told the Kan public broadcaster, “Here and there they updated me as well.”

Litzman has this week accused the government of overreacting in its response to the pandemic, aiming his criticism squarely at the outgoing director of his office, Moshe Bar Siman-Tov, who resigned last week.

Litzman, who in the freshly formed unity government switched to the Housing Ministry, was widely seen to have allowed Bar Siman-Tov to take the lead on Health Ministry policies in dealing with the virus outbreak.

“There are professionals who sit down [to meet] and afterwards they check all kinds of things, and that’s it,” Litzman told the radio station. “They speak with the National Security Council, they speak with the prime minister, sometimes also with the health minister.”

“The professional echelon sat down, made recommendations, and then went with them to the National Security Council and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu,” he said.

When pushed for clarification on how involved he was in the process, Litzman was evasive, saying only that “here and there they updated me too.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L), Health minister Yaakov Litzman (R) and Health Ministry Director General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov at a press conference about the coronavirus at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on March 11, 2020. (Flash90)

Litzman stood by an assertion he had made that Netanyahu and Bar Siman-Tov overreacted in their response to the coronavirus.

He reiterated that several times during cabinet meetings he rejected the notion, pushed by Bar Siman-Tov, that 10,000 people could die if strict lockdown measures were not imposed. The specter of a high death toll was a central plank in government justifications for ordering the lockdown. As of Monday, 277 people have died in Israel of the virus and 16,650 have been diagnosed with COVID-19, the disease it causes.

“I said that in the presence of the director-general and the prime minister and in the presence of all the ministers,” Litzman said. “In reality I was right. The prime minister saved the country and I thank him for that, but there are things that I did not agree with.”

In particular, he said, he opposed a closure of Bnei Brak imposed after a spike in virus cases in the predominantly ultra-Orthodox city. Entry and exit to the city was banned and police and soldiers were sent in to oversee lockdown measures that included strict stay-at-home orders.

Bar Siman-Tov was reportedly the one who persuaded Netanyahu to announce the closure. Litzman publicly supported the decision, but some of his associates have said that was merely a threat designed to get the community to adhere to the guidelines to prevent the necessity of a closure.

“I said that a closure was needed and I regret that. There was no need to close the whole city, just part of it,” Litzman told Kan. “As a matter of fact, there was no need to close the synagogues.”

Synagogues were closed for weeks during the lockdown in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and are currently only permitted to hold services outside with a reduced number congregants who must wear face masks and adhere to social distancing.

Litzman came under heavy criticism in early April when a television report said he took part in group prayers in violation of his own ministry’s guidelines shortly before he was himself infected with the coronavirus.

Border Police officers inspect drivers in a checkpoint at the exit of the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak on April 3, 2020 (Gili Yaari /Flash90)

He suggested to Kan that some of his critics were just bothered by the fact that he is ultra-Orthodox.

“A sizable part of the public didn’t like that I wore a shtreimel in the press conferences,” Lizman said, referring to the massive fur hat he wore during one of Netanyahu’s evening virus-related addresses to the nation.

Litzman also blasted as anti-Semitic a Haaretz newspaper reporter who published a story claiming that he had ordered the premature opening of IKEA furniture stores because the chain’s Israel owner has donated millions to the minister’s Gur Hasidic sect.

“The Health Ministry was not all involved in the opening of IKEA,” he said, insisting it was the Finance Ministry that had pushed for the store to be opened in the early stages of lifting lockdown measures, even as many other businesses remained shut.

Other ministers have reportedly challenged Litzman’s claims that he opposed some of the lockdown measures.

On Monday evening, Channel 12 cited unnamed ministers attacking Litzman over his criticism.

“If there was an exaggeration, why was Litzman the one who approved the closure of [the ultra-Orthodox city of] Bnei Brak, and even defended his decision before his community and in the media?” one minister was quoted as saying.

The minister said Litzman had let Bar Siman-Tov “be the main actor in the show” and that the health minister “often wasn’t present at all.”

“Even if there was an exaggeration and panic, Litzman didn’t sound the alarm at any stage,” the minister said.

Responding to Litzman’s comments, Bar Siman-Tov told the Ynet news site on Sunday that he believed the ministry had made the right decisions throughout the crisis.

“I greatly respect Minister Litzman and his views and great contribution to the battle against the virus, and I believe that we have worked wisely and saved many thousands of lives all along the way,” he said.

Litzman was largely absent from the public eye during the coronavirus crisis, some three weeks of which he spent being treated for a COVID-19 infection alongside his wife.

Though he appeared in some early briefings, the face of the Health Ministry’s response was Bar Siman-Tov, leading some to speculate on the level of Litzman’s involvement in the ministry’s decision-making.

Late last month, Litzman informed Netanyahu of his wish to move to the Housing Ministry. He was appointed to the post on Sunday.

After serving as head or de facto head of the ministry for most of the past decade, Litzman said that he now would “prefer to address the housing shortage” in Israel.

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