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Outgoing health minister says office’s former director ‘exaggerated’ virus fears

Former health minister Yaakov Litzman, who stepped down from the post with the swearing-in of the new government, on Sunday appeared to accuse the government of overreacting in its response to the pandemic.

Litzman came under fire for his conduct as health minister, was accused of flouting government guidelines which shuttered synagogues in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and contracted the virus himself last month.

He aimed his criticism squarely at the former director of his office, Moshe Bar Siman-Tov, who resigned last week.

Asked during an interview with the Kan public broadcaster if he thought the government’s response to the pandemic was overblown, Litzman responded,

“I also thought so, that the panic was overblown, and when [Bar Siman-Tov] said he feared tens of thousands would die, I yelled at the cabinet meeting, in his presence and in the presence of the ministers, that I disagreed with that assessment. It’s just exaggerated.”

“But it didn’t matter.

The prime minister accepted this hyperbole and responded to the fears of the director, and operated according to that,” Litzman continued, before adding, “and I can’t say I have many claims against him, because overall the situation is excellent.”

However, he stressed that just 272 Israelis died as of Sunday, rather than the tens of thousands predicted by Bar Siman-Tov.

Responding to Litzman’s comments, Bar Siman-Tov told the Ynet news site on Sunday that he believed the ministry had made the right decisions throughout the crisis.

“I greatly respect Minister Litzman and his views and great contribution to the battle against the virus, and I believe that we have worked wisely and saved many thousands of lives all along the way,” he said.

Late last month, Litzman informed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of his wish to move to the Housing Ministry. He was appointed to the post on Sunday and was replaced as health minister by Likud’s Yuli Edelstein.

After serving as head or de facto head of the ministry for most of the past decade, Litzman, who heads the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, said that he now would “prefer to address the housing shortage” in Israel.

A current senior official in the ministry told Channel 12 that “in recent years Litzman was missing in action at the Health Ministry. In his first term he did good work but something happened” afterward.

Some reports said he had been told to move on by the spiritual leader of his Gur Hasidic sect.

The Ynet news site reported that ultra-Orthodox leaders believe Litzman could be helpful to the community’s needs from the Housing Ministry, while avoiding being scapegoated for any fallout from the pandemic.

Asked what his message to the public was upon his entry into the Housing Ministry, Litzman told Kan on Sunday that, “I’m not embarrassed to help the Haredi public. I’ve been attacked in the media for this even before I’ve started in the position, but it’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

“I plan to work for the Haredi public in addition to others, rather than exclusively. I’ll also work for Arabs and Jews, the secular and the ultra-Orthodox. I’ll work for everyone,” he said.

Litzman said that while he does not have any specific plans for his new post, he does have “thoughts.”

Asked how he plans to lower housing prices in Israel, Litzman said, “try me. You’ll see the plans I’ll bring and you’ll see that I’ll bring a solution.”

Litzman was largely absent from the public eye during the coronavirus crisis (some three weeks of which he spent being treated for a COVID-19 infection alongside his wife).

Though he appeared in some early briefings, the face of the Health Ministry’s response was Bar Siman-Tov, leading some to speculate on the level of Litzman’s involvement in the ministry’s decision-making.

Litzman came under heavy criticism in early April when a television report said he took part in group prayers in violation of his own ministry’s guidelines shortly before he was infected with the coronavirus.

Litzman has also come under fire over the past year due to allegations that he illicitly pressured officials in his office to change their psychiatric reports in order to deem alleged serial pedophile Malka Leifer unfit for extradition to Australia. Leifer has ties to Litzman’s Gur sect of Hasidim.

Last July, police recommended that the minister be indicted in the Leifer case. He denies wrongdoing. If charged, Litzman would have to step down as minister.

Original: Jacob Magid – TOI