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TV: Ministers say Litzman ‘lying’ about having warned virus policy was excessive

Ministers reportedly rebuked outgoing Health Minister Yaakov Litzman on Monday, saying he was “lying” when claiming he had spoken out against the “exaggerated” policies of the ministry’s director-general during the coronavirus outbreak.

Litzman on Sunday accused the government of overreacting in its response to the pandemic, aiming his criticism squarely at the outgoing 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.”

Litzman, who heads the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, doubled down to an extent during the Monday ceremony in which he was replaced as health minister by Likud’s Yuli Edelstein.

“I don’t know how many sick people there are at the moment, but the number is low and we’re getting out of it. We succeeded, in large part because of quarantines and warnings — maybe too strong — but we did good things,” he said.

On Monday evening, Channel 12 cited unnamed ministers attacking Litzman over his criticism.

“If there was an exaggeration, why was Litzman the one who approved the closure of [the ultra-Orthodox city of] Bnei Brak, and even defended his decision before his community and in the media?” one minister was quoted as saying.

The minister said Litzman had let Bar Siman-Tov “be the main actor in the show” and that the health minister “many times wasn’t present at all.”

“Even if there was an exaggeration and panic, Litzman didn’t sound the alarm at any stage.”

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

Litzman is said to have paid a big price within his Gur Hasidic sect for the closure of Bnei Brak, a decision vehemently opposed by the sect’s rabbis.

Bar Siman-Tov was reportedly the one who persuaded Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to announce the closure. Litzman publicly supported the decision, but some of his associates have said that was merely a threat designed to get the community to adhere to the guidelines to prevent the necessity of a closure.

The closure is said to have possibly been the reason for the decision by Litzman’s rabbi to order him to switch from health minister to housing minister.

Responding to Litzman’s original 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 along the way,” he said.

Late last month, Litzman informed Netanyahu of his wish to move to the Housing Ministry. He was appointed to the post on Sunday.

After serving as head or de facto head of the ministry for most of the past decade, Litzman said that he now would “prefer to address the housing shortage” in Israel.

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.

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: TOI – Jacob Magid contributed to this report.