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Litzman may be facing indictment over the Malka Leifer case

After 18 years, Litzman to give up leadership of United Torah Judaism

Moshe Gafni to take over at helm of ultra-Orthodox party, with Litzman in second spot; Shas No. 2 Yitzhak Cohen to retire from politics

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

United Torah Judaism party chairman and Health Minister Yaakov Litzman (L) and party member Moshe Gafni attend the party headquarters on election night in Giv'at Shmuel, March 2, 2020. (Roy Alima/ Flash90)
United Torah Judaism party chairman and Health Minister Yaakov Litzman (L) and party member Moshe Gafni attend the party headquarters on election night in Giv'at Shmuel, March 2, 2020. (Roy Alima/ Flash90)

After 18 years at the helm, MK Yaakov Litzman will step down as chair of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism, the party announced Monday, saying that current No. 2, MK Moshe Gafni, will lead it in the March election as part of a power-sharing deal between the two.

Litzman, who heads the Agudat Israel faction representing Hasidic communities, and Gafni, who leads the Degel Hatorah faction of Lithuanian (non-Hasidic) ultra-Orthodox Jews, will switch places on the party slate.

Gafni and Litzman will be followed on the slate by Knesset members Uri Maklev, Meir Porush, Yaakov Asher, Yaakov Tessler, Yitzhak Pindros, and Yisrael Eichler, the party said, announcing the final electoral list three days before Thursday’s deadline.

The leadership change is the result of a deal between the two factions agreed upon before the 2019 election, by which Litzman and Gafni would switch places every two years.

Then-health minister Yaakov Litzman (left) at an election campaign opening event for his United Torah Judaism party in Bnei Brak on May 30, 2019. The party slogan on the banner behind him reads ‘At the moment of truth.’ (Flash90)

The move came about after the two Haredi factions went head-to-head in the local elections that year, backing different candidates in various cities in campaigns that frequently turned acrimonious. Surprising many in the ultra-Orthodox community, Degel HaTorah vastly outperformed Agudat Yisrael, winning almost double the number of municipal seats nationwide.

As a result, the Lithuanian faction demanded a number of changes to the make-up of the party slate, which until then had been made up of 60 percent Agudat Yisrael representatives.

Elected to the Knesset in 1999, Litzman, who currently serves as housing and construction minister, was the de facto head of the health ministry for over a decade, serving as either deputy or full health minister from 2009 until mid-2020. Gafni, who has been a lawmaker since 1988, has served as chair of the powerful Knesset Finance Committee since 2009.

The move to replace Litzman with Gafni, despite being part of the power-sharing agreement, was met with speculation that the party was preempting a possible indictment against Litzman, which would force him to resign as minister.

Litzman 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.

Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman of the United Torah Judaism party arrives for the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on June 2, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Also Monday, Shas No. 2, Deputy Finance Minister Yitzhak Cohen, who has served in Israel’s parliament since 1996, announced that he is quitting politics and will not run in the election.

Responding to his decision, Shas leader Aryeh Deri said Cohen, 69, is “loved and respected by all.”

Cohen will retain some role in the party in the future, added Deri. “We won’t give up on this talent,” he said.

Polls have consistently shown both ultra-Orthodox Shas and UTJ winning 7-8 seats in the March 23 election.

In a Channel 12 poll released Sunday, Likud was predicted to win 30 seats in the 120-member Knesset; Yesh Atid 17; New Hope 14; Yamina 13; Joint List 10; Shas 8; United Torah Judaism 8; Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu 7; Labor 5; Meretz 4; and Blue and White 4.

The survey did not show a clear path to a majority coalition for any party. Likud and its longtime ultra-Orthodox allies would have 46 seats, far short of the 61 needed to form a majority. With the right-wing Yamina the bloc would still fall short, with 59 seats. It is unlikely that any other party would join a coalition led by Netanyahu.

An anti-Netanyahu coalition, meanwhile, would need to bridge significant differences to amass 61 seats by reconciling factions, such as the right-wing New Hope and dovish Meretz.

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