Under-fire Israeli health minister says wants new cabinet post

Jerusalem (AFP) –


Israel's Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, whose handling of the coronavirus crisis within his own religious community has been criticised, said Sunday he wanted a different cabinet post in the next government.

Litzman, a member of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community hit disproportionately hard by the virus in Israel, informed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he had "decided not to return to the health ministry," Litzman's office said in a statement.

Israeli ministerial portfolios are being divided up days after Netanyahu agreed to form a unity government with his election rival, ex-military chief Benny Gantz, ending an unprecedented year-long political stalemate.

The 71-year-old Litzman has asked Netanyahu to allocate him the housing ministry, his office added.

Litzman, who himself has recovered from the COVID-19 illness, is one of the most prominent politicians in ultra-Orthodox, or haredi, society.

Haredim were reluctant to adopt virus-protection measures, notably social distancing, and continued to worship in synagogues after such gatherings had been banned.

Despite representing around 12 percent of Israel's population, the ultra-Orthodox community has accounted for more than a third of the country's infections.

As the severity of the outbreak among haredim became clear, Litzman was sharply criticised for not forcefully conveying the threat to the community's top rabbis and ensuring protective measures were observed.

On Sunday, he said the health crisis and the criticism against him had further exposed an "unfortunate phenomenon" that has seen haredim "facing incitement... and slander", the statement said.

Litzman pledged to work to against such discrimination while protecting "the rights and needs of the ultra-Orthodox, who are citizens who heed the law and their rabbis".

Israel has more than 15,000 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus but only 199 deaths.

Litzman praised the government's response to the pandemic and stressed his leading role, noting that the decision to quickly curb travel from China and impose social distancing measures "turned out to be lifesaving".

Litzman heads the United Torah Judaism, an ulta-Orthodox political alliance that has been a key Netanyahu ally in recent years.

He is therefore expected to be given a cabinet seat as the prime minister works to finalise his unity government with Gantz, head of the centrist Blue and White alliance.