Housing Minister Yaakov Litzman resigned from the government on Sunday in protest of the government’s imminent decision to impose a general lockdown during the upcoming holiday period.
Litzman — the former health minister — had long threatened to resign if the lockdown plan is approved, and had also said his United Torah Judaism party could bolt the coalition.
Litzman accused coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu of planning for months to impose a lockdown on Rosh Hashanah — which begins this week — and Yom Kippur while avoiding the move during the summer season.
In a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Litzman decried the fact that the lockdown would prevent worshipers, including tens of thousands of Jews who don’t go to a synagogue during most of the year, from attending the most important and well-attended Jewish services of the year.
Litzman, who was infected with coronavirus in April when he was health minister and was also reportedly caught attending a prayer group of more than 10 men despite a ban on such gatherings, said he had opposed the lockdown plan “in all forums” and said that if a lockdown was needed, it should have been imposed a month or several weeks ago.
“Unfortunately, it has been proven that I was right and that the decision to impose a general lockdown during the Tishrei festivals was pre-made while taking an unnecessary risk and causing a rise in infections in the meantime,” he wrote.
He also claimed Netanyahu had violated an agreement according to which synagogues would remain open under more lenient restrictions than those set to be approved.
“Therefore, I won’t be able to continue in my role as minister, and I have decided to resign from the government and return to being a member of the Knesset according to the Norwegian Law,” he said, referring to a law that allows ministers to resign from the Knesset and allow another lawmaker to replace them, and return to the parliament when they cease to serve as minister.
Netanyahu said he was “very saddened” at the decision, but added: “I respect Yaakov Litzman and I also respect his decision.”
He was speaking at the opening of a cabinet meeting during which ministers are expected to approve the lockdown decision.
“We must move forward, make the decisions needed for the State of Israel during the coronavirus crisis, and that’s what we will do during this meeting,” he said.
Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, who leads a second ultra-Orthodox party, Shas, said he was also “very saddened” at Litzman’s resignation.
“We will continue together, in the government and outside it, to fight the coronavirus for the health of the Israeli people,” he said in a statement in which he also expressed hope that Litzman would return to the government.
Health Minister Yuli Edelstein expressed regret at Litzman stepping down, but took issue with his reasoning.
“We must all remember that none of us are against Judaism,” he said in a statement. “All of us are in favor of fighting the virus. All the actions by the Health Ministry and Gamzu are designed for that purpose alone.”
UTJ bolting the coalition would not have a dramatic effect on the current government — it has more than enough members without the party — but it would complicate Netanyahu’s prospects of forming a right-wing government following Knesset elections widely expected to be called for next year.
Current opinion polls indicate that together with UTJ and the Yamina and Shas parties, Netanyahu’s Likud will be able to form a government. But if UTJ stops supporting the premier, that option would be off the table. Therefore, Litzman is seen as a key, indispensable ally of Netanyahu.
However, when Litzman made a similar threat last month, a UTJ source dismissed it, saying he didn’t have the backing of the rest of the party and was only making the threat to get Netanyahu’s attention.
“Who is Litzman? He barely represents himself. In the past when he threatened it was worth something,” the source told the Haaretz daily at the time. “He didn’t consult with anyone in United Torah Judaism on the matter.”
The resignation came as the government convened Sunday to approve a multi-phase plan for a national lockdown, despite objections voiced in recent days by several ministers along with business owners and much of the public, as coronavirus infection levels have continued to rise and hospital directors have warned medical staff are severely overworked.
Aspects of the lockdown plan were given preliminary approval by the ministers of the so-called coronavirus cabinet on Thursday, but their support was not unanimous.
The Health Ministry is proposing starting the new national lockdown at 6 a.m. Friday, September 18, and to close schools by Wednesday, September 16, according to widespread reports on the multi-phase closure plan from Hebrew media on Saturday. Some reports on Sunday suggested the closing of schools could be delayed until September 18.
The first phase of the intended lockdown, lasting at least two weeks, will see most Israelis limited to traveling 500 meters from their homes, except for essential needs such as food and medicine.
All non-essential shops will be closed to the public, though allowed to make deliveries. Restaurants will be allowed to operate with takeout and deliveries only.
Workplaces will be allowed to operate at 30 percent capacity, or 10 employees — the higher of the two. Exceptions will be made for certain essential operations.
Public prayers on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur will be allowed under certain limitations that have yet to be finalized, reports said.
Finance Ministry assessments say the cost to the country’s economy of the holiday closures will amount to NIS 18 billion ($5.2 billion) at the very least, Channel 12 said.
The second phase of the lockdown is slated to begin around October 1, subject to developments, and to last around two weeks. It is being designated as an interim “tightened restraint” period, during which outdoor gatherings for the entire country will be capped at 50 people and indoor gatherings at 25. Transit between cities will not be allowed. Leisure and entertainment activities will remain closed. Business places will still be barred from receiving customers, and workplaces will be allowed to operate at 30%-50% capacity.
In the third and final phase, the government will reimpose the so-called “traffic light” plan, which addresses each city and town based on its morbidity rate.
With the country facing its second national lockdown and the government’s pandemic policies being widely perceived as disorderly and at times random, many businesses have vowed in recent days to defy closure orders, saying they will not survive a new shutdown.
Additionally, earlier Sunday, a vehicle with municipal inspectors was attacked by dozens of ultra-Orthodox residents of the ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea Shearim, Channel 12 news reported.
For weeks, Haredi press has cast the government and Gamzu as unfairly targeting their community with local lockdown decisions, causing widespread anger at state bodies.
The Jerusalem crowd hurled rocks and glass bottles at the inspectors’ vehicle and at police officers who came to rescue them. They also sprayed the rescued car with black paint.