Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman on Thursday charged that Benny Gantz has been “infected” by the “contagious disease” that is his party’s No. 2, Yair Lapid, who has long been a bane of ultra-Orthodox politicians.
Gantz, who leads the centrist Blue and White alliance, on Tuesday vowed to form a “liberal” unity government if he is tasked with putting together a coalition after the upcoming elections, appearing to rule out joining forces with ultra-Orthodox and national religious parties.
“Up until yesterday, I did not attack Gantz at all, I said I could go with him provided Lapid is not with him,” Litzman told Kan public radio. “But apparently Lapid is a contagious disease, and he also infected Gantz.”
“Criticism is legitimate, it is permissible. But whoever has a hatred of religion I believe is anti-Semitic,” he clarified later in the interview.
Asked if he thought his statements went too far, Litzman responded: “I think what he is doing is also far-reaching.”
Gantz’s comments on Tuesday, which appeared to rule out forming a coalition with ultra-Orthodox political parties, came as his campaign has sought to sharpen the contours of a possible government he may look to form after elections on September 17.
The announcement signaled a shift for Gantz, who had been making efforts to stay on good terms with potential future political partners from the Haredi parties.
The new strategy aligned Gantz with Lapid, who has pushed a tougher stance against the ultra-Orthodox parties, accusing them of “extorting” money from the government and blasting their refusal to serve in the military.
Blue and White was formed ahead of the April elections as a union of Gantz’s Israel Resilience party, Lapid’s Yesh Atid and former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon’s Telem.
It is the main challenger to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, having won 35 seats in the April elections — the same as Likud — of the 120-seat Knesset. It is currently polling neck-and-neck with the ruling party ahead of the September 17 vote, which Netanyahu initiated when he failed to form a government in the wake of the previous elections over a dispute between the secularist Yisrael Beytenu partyand the ultra-Orthodox parties.
Gantz has consistently expressed a willingness to form a unity coalition with Likud if the party is no longer headed by Netanyahu, who faces corruption charges in three cases pending a hearing.
In his Tuesday comments, the Blue and White leader appeared to also rule out joining forces with other religious right-wing parties.
“I promise that immediately after the elections we’ll establish a liberal unity government that will be based on the majority, not extremists and extortion,” he said. “Prime ministers have surrendered to the blackmail of sectoral parties instead of worrying about what the majority needs.”
Last month, the ultra-Orthodox community decried Lapid as anti-Semitic after the Blue and White No. 2 tweeted a satirical campaign video portraying senior ultra-Orthodox politicians as venal and corrupt, demanding large sums of money in exchange for pledging loyalty to Netanyahu.
Litzman called the ad itself anti-Semitic, declaring that it had crossed a “red line” and that it was reminiscent of “dark periods in which Jews were portrayed as greedy persecutors.” Lapid responded quickly, stating that he was unwilling to accept criticism from someone who “protects pedophiles,” a reference to allegations that Litzman, the deputy health minister, had improperly protected sex offenders in at least 10 cases.
“I’m also not impressed that they scream ‘hate, hate’ every time someone criticizes them. There is real anti-Semitism in the world: Jews are shot in synagogues. This is not anti-Semitism,” Lapid said. “We will continue to fight for Israel as a Jewish, democratic, free and liberal state.”