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Month after resigning to protest lockdown, Litzman set for return to government

Deal would see top ultra-Orthodox MK become deputy housing minister, Shas Deputy Finance Minister Yitzhak Cohen promoted to be his boss in name only

Then-health minister Yaakov Litzman at a press conference about the coronavirus at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, March 11, 2020. (Flash90)
Then-health minister Yaakov Litzman at a press conference about the coronavirus at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, March 11, 2020. (Flash90)

United Torah Judaism party leader MK Yaakov Litzman is set to return to the government just weeks after resigning as housing minister to protest the coronavirus lockdown over the High Holidays, Hebrew media reported late Sunday.

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 also to housing minister.

Litzman would then be appointed as deputy housing minister but would be the de facto minister.

Deputy Finance Minister Yitzhak Cohen attends a Shas party campaign event in Jerusalem on July 22, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

The strange workaround is aimed at maintaining the number of ministers and deputy ministers allotted to each party under the coalition agreement between the Likud and the Blue and White party. Litzman reportedly asked Blue and White to be allowed to become a minister under their allotment of positions but was rebuffed. (Cohen apparently will not having ministerial voting rights.)

Blue and White currently have 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 the deal was agreed to by all parties but would still need to be approved by the cabinet and the Knesset.

Litzman’s imminent return to the government comes a month after he quit in protest of the government’s impending 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, 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 a 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 reportedly caught attending a prayer group of more than 10 men despite a ban on such gatherings, 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.”

Litzman’s likely 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. Spiraling infections across the country prompted the current lockdown, the second this year. Although initially scheduled to be lifted at the end of Sukkot, officials have said it will continue for at least a week longer before any easing of restrictions takes place.

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