The head of the United Torah Judaism party can become a full minister if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is forced to give up his ancillary posts due to graft charges, the faction’s rabbinical advisers said late Saturday.
Yaakov Litzman has been serving as deputy health minister for several years, with the premier the titular head of the ministry.
However, Netanyahu will likely soon have to relinquish the post, along with three other ministerial posts in the wake of Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s decision to indict him in three corruption cases. According to legal precedent, a minister cannot continue to serve under indictment. The rule does not explicitly apply to the prime minister, and Netanyahu has vowed to maintain his position as premier while he fights the charges.
Netanyahu currently holds the agriculture, health, social affairs and diaspora affairs portfolios, and only recently gave up the defense and foreign ministries. The Likud leader has made a habit of holding several ministries himself, either to use later as leverage in political organizations, or in Litzman’s case, to allow him to avoid becoming a full minister.
Like other UTJ leaders before him, Litzman had refused to take a full ministerial positions due to the ultra-Orthodox community’s reluctance to grant full legitimacy to a secular Jewish state.
However, a group of rabbis who serve as spiritual advisers to the ultra-Orthodox party agreed Saturday night that Litzman could become minister should Netanyahu resign the post.
Litzman is a member of the Gur Hasidic movement, and major policy decisions are often made by the powerful the head of the sect, or Admor, Rabbi Yaakov Aryeh Alter, as well as other rabbis.
According to Channel 12 news, the rabbis only gave the green light because the ministerial post is part of a transitional government, with stunted powers.
Litzman had already been the de facto head of the ministry, with Netanyahu holding the title in name only.
In 2015, Alter and other rabbis also gave Litzman permission to become a full minister, after the High Court ruled that deputy ministers could not fulfill the role of ministers. In 2017, after he resigned to protest train infratrscture work being carried out on Shabbat, the government passed a law making it legal for deputy ministers to hold de facto authority over the office, allowing him to return.
Litzman himself may soon face charges over allegations that he used his office to illicitly provide assistance to an alleged serial sex abuser, as well as on a separate bribery charge for helping to prevent the closure of a Jerusalem deli despite serious health concerns.
According to the Kan public broadcaster, Mandelblit is expected to announce in the coming weeks if he intends to indict Litzman.
On Friday, the Blue and White party called on Mandelblit to order Netanyahu to immediately give up the four ministerial posts.
Netanyahu is expected to announce he is giving up the portfolios within days, the Haaretz newspaper reported.
Netanyahu, in an emotional and defiant address Thursday, accused prosecutors and justice officials of a “tainted process,” and vowed to “continue to lead Israel… in accordance with the law,” shortly after Mandelblit announced he would charge the premier with bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three separate cases against him.
The announcement did not include the official filing of an indictment, as the Knesset must first decide on lifting Netanyahu’s procedural immunity, a process that — due to the current political gridlock and the lack of a functioning government — could drag on for months.
The attorney general is reportedly also set to rule on whether Netanyahu can legally be tasked with forming a government due to the announcement of criminal charges against him- with one report claiming Mandelblit sees “significant legal difficulties” in such an eventuality.
After September’s elections, and failed efforts by Netanyahu and rival Blue and White leader Benny Gantz to muster a majority, the Knesset now has until December 11 to find a prime ministerial candidate who enjoys the support of 61 MKs. With kingmaker the Yisrael Beytenu party saying it will not support a narrow government of any kind, and the indictment announcement seemingly killing off any chance of Blue and White agreeing to share power with Netanyahu, a new national election — the third in less than a year — appears all but inevitable.
Gantz on Saturday said Netanyahu must step aside due to the pending charges and called on other Likud leaders to join him in a unity government to prevent a “pointless” new election.
And in the greatest challenge to Netanyahu yet by a figure inside his party, MK Gideon Sa’ar on Saturday castigated Netanyahu for describing the charges against him as “an attempted coup,” demanded an immediate leadership contest in their ruling Likud party, and claimed he could “easily form a government.”