Elections 2019: Litzman’s diagnosis for an ailing country

The deputy health minister outlines his health care accomplishments and digs in on haredi opposition to compromise regarding religious affairs.

Ya'acov Litzman (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Ya'acov Litzman
Last year, during Hanukkah, Deputy Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman received a phone call. On the line was a friend who told Litzman about a 100-year-old man who was lying on a bed in the hallway inside a Jerusalem emergency room. “He’s been there for several days,” he said.
Litzman called one of the hospital’s directors and received assurances that the man would get a proper bed and would be moved into a proper hospital ward, to be treated for his ailment. The next day, though, Litzman got a call from another person who told him that the man was still lying in the emergency room hallway.
“I can’t believe it,” Litzman said. He got up from his desk on the 13th floor of the Health Ministry and hurried down to the garage. His staff had no clue where he was going. Within a few minutes, Litzman was at the entrance to the hospital. He called the ER and announced that he was outside and had come to conduct a surprise inspection.
When he walked inside, all of the hospital top staff was there waiting. Litzman immediately spotted the old man but purposely turned the other way, so as not to let on that he had come just for him.
When he got to the man’s bed, he asked how long he had been there and what was delaying his transfer or discharge.
“We’ll look into it,” the doctors said.
“No problem,” Litzman responded, while grabbing a nearby chair. “I will sit by his side and wait for you to decide.”
Needless to say, within minutes the man was moved.
SAY WHAT you want about Litzman, but it is hard to question his compassion and commitment to helping Israel’s ill. Since taking up the role of deputy health minister in 2009, Litzman has set up an office that fields thousands of calls a day from the sick and needy. Its entire purpose is to connect patients with doctors, help them secure appointments and move patients from hospital hallways to wards.
While it is true that Israel lags behind the OECD average when it comes to the number of hospital beds, doctors and MRIs, Litzman takes pride in the consistent rise in life expectancy in Israel, where the average is now 82.5 years, one of the highest in the world.
“There are problems and we have what to improve,” he told The Jerusalem Post this week. “But to portray the situation as all bad is totally inaccurate.”
Litzman sat down this week for a wide-ranging interview that included a look at Israel’s health system, the upcoming elections and matters of religion and state.
When it comes to the elections, Litzman said he hopes to unite United Torah Judaism, which he heads, with Shas and create a single haredi electoral list that he predicts could get a significant boost in Knesset seats.
Critically, he said he would still recommend Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to form the next government, even if he is indicted, and maintains his fierce and uncompromising opposition to sitting in any government that includes Yesh Atid, because of the policies party leader Yair Lapid advanced on haredi issues in the 33rd government of Israel.
In the realm of health care, one of Litzman’s top priorities is upgrading Israeli ERs. So far, he has invested hundreds of millions of shekels in building new emergency rooms in places such as Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer, but says that more needs to be done at hospitals such as Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem.
“Waiting 11 hours in an emergency room is a catastrophe, and this needs to be fixed,” he said.
To improve the situation, the ministry has ordered hospitals to appoint an official to go through ERs and regularly ask patients what they are waiting for and what they need, as part of an effort to improve the speed and quality of care.
In addition, Litzman – who doesn’t use the computer on his desk – had a large screen installed opposite his desk so he could monitor in real time what the situation is in Israel’s ERs.
“I can see what is happening to patients and how long they are waiting and can then pick up the phone and call when I see something is wrong,” he explained.
AS SOME of his successes, Litzman lists this year’s health basket, which he was able to grow by NIS 200 million, and how over the last eight years the number of MRIs has grown from nine to 47.
And ahead of the passing of the recent state budget, he managed to get the Treasury to fund the procurement of five new PET-CTs, a key scan needed for cancer patients.
In the coalition talks that will take place after the election on April 9 – he seems pretty confident that Netanyahu will form the next government – Litzman said he will work to raise the health basket to NIS 1 billion.
Turning to questions of politics and religious affairs, Litzman becomes rather more taciturn and defensive, as is his wont.
Asked if he would recommend that Netanyahu form the next government even if he is indicted, the deputy minister answered that he would do “what the law allows.”
Said Litzman, “I can’t be attacked for not respecting the law and also attacked for respecting the law. The law says that a prime minister can continue to serve, and a minister not. So if the law allows it, I will allow it.”
He rejected ethical concerns over having an indicted prime minister serving the country, saying that abiding by the rule of law was moral enough.
And while four years have passed since Lapid was fired as finance minister in a government that kept the haredi parties in the opposition, Litzman has neither forgotten nor forgiven. The UTJ leader said that under no circumstances would he agree to sit in the same coalition as Lapid.
“It won’t happen,” he said. “I will not forget what Lapid did to us.”
One of the prominent issues the outgoing government dealt with was matters of religion and state, and the country’s relationship with the Diaspora, not least the controversy regarding prayer rights at the Western Wall.
Here, Litzman remained, as ever, unyielding in his vociferous opposition to Progressive Jewish rights at the holy site and, more broadly, to the influence of Progressive Jews in Israel.
“I will never give the Reform a foothold at the Western Wall. If they want a foothold, they should come to Israel, stand for election to the Knesset like I do, and give their opinions. As long as they sit there with their money, we don’t need [to give them] anything,” he avowed.
Challenged as to whether a critical component of democracy is to protect the rights of minorities, Litzman replied merely that “democracy also protects the majority,” eliding the reality that it is not majorities – which can legislate whatever they want – that need protecting.
THE DEPUTY MINISTER also took a swipe at the liberal stance of large parts of US Jewry, sniping that while US Jews have demanded prayer rights for non-Orthodox Jews at the Kotel, “They vote against the State of Israel, against [US President Donald] Trump, against [the transfer of the US] Embassy [to Jerusalem], in favor of BDS.”
As to the threat that the High Court of Justice could intervene and allocate a prayer space at the central Western Wall Plaza to Progressive Jews, Litzman declared that if the court would issue such a decision, the haredi parties would pass legislation to circumvent it, “without doubt.”
And Litzman went further, saying that United Torah Judaism may even demand a bill abolishing the High Court’s ability to strike down laws in any future coalition agreement, due to the threat posed by the court to haredi political interests such as the Western Wall issue, but also regarding haredi conscription to the IDF, Jewish conversion and other matters.
A High Court override bill was advanced by former Bayit Yehudi leaders Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked during the last Knesset, but it proved too controversial even for a coalition devoid of left-wing parties to pass.
Litzman said any such law UTJ would advance would stipulate that the High Court be legally unable to strike down a law passed by the Knesset, a formulation that goes beyond even what Bayit Yehudi proposed, which was that the Knesset could override a High Court decision striking down legislation.
In the meantime, although the comprehensive Western Wall resolution of January 2016 was indefinitely frozen in June 2017 due to pressure from UTJ, Shas and hard-line National Religious elements, the prime minister has sought to physically upgrade the current site.
These efforts have so far been stymied by the religious parties by blocking the necessary administrative procedures required to proceed.
Asked whether he can live with the prime minister’s limited plans for a physical upgrade, Litzman said somewhat obtusely, “I don’t know what the prime minister intends,” although details of the plans have been widely publicized, including in the Post.
“I need to know and I don’t know. He [the prime minister] should come, sit with me and [senior UTJ leader Moshe] Gafni and [Shas leader Arye] Deri and discuss it,” he said.
Turning to the issue of haredi conscription, Litzman declared that he would oppose the law advanced in the outgoing Knesset, which included financial sanctions against the general yeshiva budget for failing to meet conscription targets, if it is brought back during the next government.
“I will resign [from the government] if it is passed,” he averred.
“The principle needs to be that anyone who wants to study [in yeshiva without being drafted] will be able to so,” Litzman said of the central, oft-repeated haredi demand regarding conscription issues.
“No quotas, no sanctions, nothing,” he insisted, although he went on to make a rare public concession in stating: “Anyone who doesn’t want to study should enlist.”
There is no doubt that as the man at the top of the ministry, Litzman has worked strenuously and with passion to improve health care for all Israelis, expand state coverage for critical drugs and rapidly increase access to crucial imaging facilities.
But when it comes to the delicate fabric of Israeli society and its relationship to religion in the public domain, as well as the position and responsibilities of the haredi community inside it, Litzman remains as unbowed and obdurate in his opposition to real change as he ever was.