Ultra-Orthodox back Litzman, Likud silent, after allegations he helped pedophile

Ultra-Orthodox back Litzman, Likud silent, after allegations he helped pedophile

Deputy health minister and UTJ party head receives broad backing from Haredi parties, while the opposition manages to muster only mild criticism for the key political player

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (c) speaks with then-health minister Yaakov Litzman (l) at the Knesset on March 28, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (c) speaks with then-health minister Yaakov Litzman (l) at the Knesset on March 28, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Ultra-Orthodox and right-wing lawmakers threw their support behind Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman Tuesday after police recommended he be indicted for using his office to protect an alleged sex offender and bribe officials to keep a restaurant open despite health concerns.

At the same time, opposition lawmakers offered only mild criticism of the deputy minister, and there were no public calls for him to resign.

Police on Tuesday said Litzman should be indicted on charges of fraud and breach of trust for using his office to illicitly provide assistance to teacher Malka Leifer, who faces 74 charges of sex abuse in Australia.

According to police, Litzman pressured officials in his office to change their psychiatric assessments of alleged sex predator in order to prevent her extradition to Australia.

(R) Deputy health minister Yaakov Litzman seen during a press conference after meeting with president Reuven Rivlin at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on April 15, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90); (L) A private investigator tagged Malka Leifer as she spoke on the phone, while sitting on a bench in Bnei Brak, on December 14, 2017. (Screen capture/YouTube)

Police also said that, in a separate case, Litzman attempted to pressure officials in the Health Ministry in order to prevent the closure of a food business whose owner “he is close to” — a closure that had been ordered due to “serious sanitary findings found that led to the sickness of a number of people who ate from its products.”

UTJ party lawmakers expressed wall-to-wall support for the leader and head of its Aguda faction, including from the head of the equally powerful Degel Hatorah faction.

“From my many years of acquaintance with Rabbi Litzman, who lives very modestly, I have no doubt that these are false suspicions and that it will be proved that he did nothing for his own benefit at all but only for the benefit of those who approached him,” Degel Hatorah head MK Moshe Gafni said, adding that, given the proximity to September’s election, “The timing of the release of police recommendations is strange and raises questions.”

A United Torah Judaism official told The Times of Israel that the allegations would have “absolutely no bearing” on either Litzman’s future place in the party or his role in the election campaign. Asked if the nature of the allegations, given that they involve helping an accused pedophile, bothered anyone in the party, the official responded, “We don’t believe the allegations. That’s the bottom line.”

The Shas party issued a similar statement of backing, saying that the party “affirms its support of Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, a faithful public envoy who has dealt with requests from the public for decades and left his door open to all.”

It added: “We are sure that his innocence will be proven and that justice will soon be revealed.”

Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman of Ultra Orthodox Judaism arrives for a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, May 26, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Beyond support from his fellow ultra-Orthodox lawmakers, Litzman also received backing from a number of right-wing politicians.

“I do not know the investigation material in Litzman’s case,” Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich of the United Right tweeted. “I do know him and his dedicated office as those who give a personal and wonderful response [to every person who approaches them for help], regardless of race or gender or religion.

A spokesperson for the United Right said that Smotrich was expressing “his own opinion” and that the party would not be commenting further.

A Likud party official told the Times of Israel that the ruling party would also not be commenting on the matter, saying the decision was based on the fact that Litzman’s UTJ could be a key part of a Likud-led religious right-wing government after elections.

“You think people are going to call for him to resign and say they won’t sit with him in a government a month away from elections?” the Likud official said mockingly.

“Save your outrage, this is politics,” the official said.

UTJ currently holds eight Knesset seats and is projected to be necessary for either a center-left or right-wing coalition to reach the needed 61 seats needed to form a government.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, speaks with Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, left, in the Knesset, on March 28, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Democratic Camp leader Nitzan Horovitz attacked the centrist the Blue and White party for seemingly being open to leading a government coalition with UTJ or Likud without Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the helm.

“Litzman, [Likud MK David] Bitan, [Welfare Minister Haim] Katz — this is the corrupt government with whom Blue and White want to form a unity government?” Horovitz asked, referring to other coalition members who police have also recommended face charges. “It has to be clear: we in the Democratic Camp will not sit in the corrupt right-wing government.”

His left-wing party released a terse statement calling the current coalition a “government of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. This corrupt regime does not need to be beaten. It must be beaten.”

Blue and White enlisted three of its MKs to criticize the UTJ head, but still stopped short of calling for his resignation. Nor did it issue an immediate statement on the police recommendations from any of the four main party leaders.

“Israeli citizens should ask themselves if they want a prime minister and ministers who look after themselves and their associates and promote immunity from indictments, or a Blue and White government that will work for the public,” said Blue and White MK Yael German.

“The motives are clear. Everything is personal, everything is sectoral and nothing is done for the sake of the state. Even if the suspicions do not cross the criminal threshold, we are talking about a serious moral breach,” Blue and White MK and former top police investigator Yoav Segalovitch said in the statement, which also included criticism from party MK Miki Haimovitch of Litzman’s neglect of the “collapsing health system.”

Leader of the ‘Shas’ party Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, right, with leader of the United Torah Judaism party Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman during a joint party meeting at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, June 19, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Litzman, who possesses many authorities of a full minister despite serving as a deputy, denied any wrongdoing, maintaining in a response to the police recommendation that his office has a “clear open-door policy for assisting members of the public. This is without discrimination between populations and without clarifying the status of those who call for assistance. The deputy minister expressed confidence that no charges would ultimately be filed.”

In the wake of the police recommendation, it will be up to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to determine whether or not to indict.

In May, Channel 13 news reported that Litzman helped at least 10 serious sex offenders obtain improved conditions, including prison furloughs and other benefits, by pressuring state psychiatrists and prisons service officials.

Earlier in the year, the TV channel had reported that police were investigating suspicions that Litzman and his chief of staff pressured a psychiatrist, Moshe Birger, to ensure that another imprisoned sex offender close to Litzman’s Gur sect of Hasidim was placed in a rehabilitation program. Participation in the program can lead to furloughs and early release from prison.

Police said Tuesday that they had not found sufficient evidence to prosecute Litzman on his suspected assistance to other alleged pedophiles.

Leifer, a former school principal who is wanted for alleged sex crimes in Australia, is known to have links to the Gur community, having once taught at a school in Israel affiliated with the branch.

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