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Litzman’s rabbi said to put kibosh on his return to government

Deal that would see UTJ head come back as deputy housing minister reportedly now off the table

Then-health minister Yaakov Litzman attends a press conference about the coronavirus at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, March 25, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Then-health minister Yaakov Litzman attends a press conference about the coronavirus at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, March 25, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

United Torah Judaism party leader MK Yaakov Litzman, who resigned from the cabinet and his post as housing minister in September over its coronavirus policies, won’t return to the cabinet as deputy housing minister due to opposition from his rabbi, according to a report on Thursday.

Litzman held talks Sunday with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and representatives from the Shas party to find a way for him to return. During the meeting, it was agreed that Deputy Finance Minister Yitzhak Cohen from Shas would be promoted to the position of minister in the Finance Ministry and to housing minister. Litzman would then be appointed as deputy housing minister but would be the de facto minister, in a complex workaround related to the distribution of power within the coalition.

But the Walla news site reported Thursday that the leader of the Gur Hasidic sect to which Litzman is affiliated put the kibosh on the appointment.

As a result of Rabbi Yaakov Aryeh Alter’s opposition, the political maneuver is off the table for now, Walla reported. No reason was given for his position.

Rabbi Yaakov Aryeh Alter, leader of the Gur Hassidic dynasty, attends a rally of United Torah Judaism ahead of upcoming elections, in Jerusalem, April 8, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Associates of Litzman, however, denied knowledge of the religious leader’s opposition. The sources told Walla that Litzman was waiting to see whether the government will adopt special restrictions on virus hotspots, most of which are ultra-Orthodox cities and towns, before planning his next step.

The move to make Litzman deputy housing minister is aimed at maintaining the number of ministers and deputy ministers allotted to each government bloc under the coalition agreement between the Likud and Blue and White parties. Litzman reportedly asked Blue and White to be allowed to become a minister under their allotment of positions but was rebuffed.

Blue and White currently has one minister fewer than its allocation, after Asaf Zamir quit as tourism minister, saying he had lost confidence in the government.

Hebrew media, citing sources close to Litzman, said earlier this week that the deal was agreed to by all parties but would still need to be approved by the cabinet and the Knesset.

Litzman quit the government in protest of the government’s decision to impose a general lockdown during the High Holiday period.

Litzman — the former health minister — had long threatened to resign if the lockdown plan was approved, and had also said his United Torah Judaism party could bolt the coalition. He did quit, on September 13, but his party did not.

Litzman accused coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu of planning for months to impose a lockdown on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur while avoiding the move during the summer season.

In a letter to Netanyahu, Litzman decried the fact that the lockdown would prevent worshipers, including tens of thousands of Jews who don’t go to 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 reported to breach a ban on mass prayers, said he had opposed the lockdown plan “in all forums” and that if a lockdown was needed, it should have been imposed weeks earlier.

“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.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men pray in The Hurva Synagogue sukkah on Hoshana Raba, the last day of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, in the Old City of Jerusalem on October 9, 2020. (Yaakov Lederman/Flash90)

He also claimed Netanyahu had violated an agreement according to which synagogues would remain open under more lenient restrictions than those imposed.

Netanyahu said at the time he was “very saddened” at the decision, but added: “I respect Yaakov Litzman and I also respect his decision.”

The question of Litzman’s return comes amid growing tension between the general public and the ultra-Orthodox communities and amid reports of deep divisions within top Haredi leadership over how to deal with the virus.

Criticism of the ultra-Orthodox community has been growing in recent weeks. Though many in the community are keeping to guidelines, a significant number disregarded lockdown restrictions during the holidays, including by holding mass gatherings.

The ultra-Orthodox have seen sky-high coronavirus infection rates, with an assessment last week finding that the rate of infection in the community is some three times that of the national average.

Litzman’s resignation last month was also met with speculation that he was preempting a possible indictment against him, which would force him to resign as minister. The United Torah Judaism leader is suspected of fraud and breach of trust for using his office to illicitly provide assistance to alleged serial sex abuser Malka Leifer, as well as on a separate bribery charge for allegedly helping to prevent the closure of a food business that his own ministry had deemed unsanitary. The attorney general has yet to announce whether he will press charges.

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