Knesset okays ex-minister Litzman to return to Health Ministry
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Knesset okays ex-minister Litzman to return to Health Ministry

Legislation and cabinet nod enable United Torah Judaism head to serve as deputy health minister, effectively running things while avoiding responsibility for Shabbat violations

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman arrives at the weekly government conference at the PM's office in Jerusalem on October 15, 2017. (Alex Kolomoisky/POOL)
Health Minister Yaakov Litzman arrives at the weekly government conference at the PM's office in Jerusalem on October 15, 2017. (Alex Kolomoisky/POOL)

United Torah Judaism chief Yaakov Litzman will return to the Health Ministry as deputy minister, but effectively its head, following the passage of a new Knesset law and a formal appointment to the post by the cabinet on Wednesday.

Litzman, who had been forced into assuming a full ministerial post when a court ruled he could not helm the body as deputy minister, resigned in November in protest over train maintenance work performed on Shabbat. Since then government officials have been searching for a way to bring the coalition partner back into the fold without making him a minister again.

To do so, Knesset members needed to pass an amendment to the state’s Basic Law: The Government, which allows Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to become titular head of the ministry, while delegating control to Litzman as deputy minister.

The bill soared through its first plenary reading on Tuesday and was fast-tracked through a Knesset committee for its final readings into law on Wednesday morning before heading to the plenum for its final votes on Wednesday afternoon in a whirlwind of legislative activity.

With some coalition lawmakers away attending the funeral of Rabbi Raziel Shevach, killed in a terror attack on Tuesday night, the opposition abruptly withdrew its objections to shorten the debate and catch the coalition off-guard. The coalition nonetheless retained a strong lead over the opposition and the legislation was approved as planned, with 62 in favor and 38 opposed.

The cabinet later on Wednesday approved Litzman’s appointment as deputy health minister, the Prime Minister’s Office confirmed.

Litzman, head of the ultra-Orthodox UTJ party, had previously served as deputy health minister with a minister’s authority between 2009 and 2013, and again in 2015. UTJ lawmakers avoid ministerial positions due to the ultra-Orthodox community’s reluctance to grant full legitimacy to a secular Jewish state.

But a 2015 High Court ruling said deputy ministers could not fulfill the role of ministers, upon which Litzman received rabbinical approval to serve as health minister in the cabinet. After his resignation last month, Netanyahu took on the portfolio.

Under the new law, Litzman will not be a member of the cabinet, however, and thus says he will not bear responsibility for its actions on matters of Shabbat observance.

Coalition lawmakers gathered around Litzman following the vote to congratulate him on the law’s passage and his expected return to the Health Ministry.

The passage of the so-called Litzman law was part of a larger compromise deal between Netanyahu and his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners, which included Shas leader Aryeh Deri’s law to shutter mini-markets on Shabbat. That law was approved on Tuesday after an all-night filibuster by the opposition.

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