Health Minister Yaakov Litzman has informed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of his decision to leave the Health Ministry in favor of an expanded Housing portfolio, an official told the Times of Israel.
According to a report on Channel 12 Thursday, Litzman has asserted that his decision was not tied to recent public criticism of his handling of the coronavirus crisis.
The report said Litzman had apparently been instructed by Rabbi Yaakov Aryeh Alter, the head of the Gur Hasidic sect, to change ministries.
Litzman’s decision to depart from the ministry was first reported by several Hebrew-language media outlets. An official in his office later confirmed it to The Times of Israel.
According to Ynet, ultra-Orthodox leaders believe Litzman could be helpful to the community’s needs from the Housing Ministry, while avoiding being scapegoated for any fallout from the pandemic.
Blue and White officials told the Ynet news site they would demand the Health Ministry be given to a health expert rather than a politician in light of the coronavirus crisis.
They added that they were willing to give up another ministry in exchange for control of the portfolio, noting that Likud had been willing to give them the health portfolio during coalition negotiations if Litzman agreed, but Litzman had refused.
Yisrael Beytenu party head Avigdor Liberman joined the call for the ministry to be led by a professional rather than a politician.
Litzman, who leads the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, has been the de facto head of the Health Ministry since 2009, except for a period between 2013 and 2015 when he was out of the government.
Several former and current officials in the Health Ministry, speaking anonymously to Channel 12, welcomed news of his departure.
“He should have left long ago,” one said.
Another former official reacted with “good riddance,” accusing the minister of having “used his power mainly to look out for the interests of his own community.”
A current senior official in the ministry said that “in recent years Litzman was missing in action at the Health Ministry. In his first term he did good work but something happened” afterwards.”
Meanwhile Prof. Zeev Rotstein, CEO of Hadassah Hospital and a Litzman ally, said the health system “will remember Litzman’s personal contribution of many years to the Health Ministry” including attaining unprecedented funds for state-subsidized drug treatments and several reforms.
Litzman has been largely absent from the public eye over the two months of 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 has been its director-general, Moshe Bar Siman-Tov, leading some to speculate on the level of Litzman’s involvement in the ministry’s decision-making.
Litzman came under heavy criticism when a television report said he took part in group prayers in violation of his own ministry’s guidelines shortly before he was infected with the coronavirus.
He has also faced criticism for allegedly using his position to aid an accused pedophile, which police have recommended he face charges over.