UTJ infighting drags out appointment of health minister

Sources say MK Ya'acov Litzman was offered the health portfolio by the Likud but does not want it, hopes to exchange it for a position which he views as more attractive.

Litzman 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Litzman 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Infighting between various factions that make up United Torah Judaism (UTJ) has resulted in an attempt to renegotiate the party's coalition agreement with the Likud and swap the Health portfolio for a deputy ministry portfolio in the Finance Ministry. According to sources in the Ger hassidic sect, MK Ya'acov Litzman, who was offered the health portfolio by the Likud but does not want it, hopes to exchange it for a position which he views as more attractive. Health is view by the haredim as a portfolio that does not particularly advance their interests. The health minister is also more liable to be exposed to public criticism. Finally, senior health officials are demanding that a full-fledged minister be appointed. Since 1953, when Agudat Yisrael MK Rabbi Yitzhak Meir Levine stepped down as Social Affairs Minister, Agudat Yisrael and its rival faction, Degel Hatorah - which now sit together in UTJ, have refused to allow its MKs to serve as ministers. Instead, UTJ MKs serve as deputy ministers without a minister senior to them. They in effect have most of the powers of a minister without having to sit in the cabinet, which may make decisions that contravene halacha. A source close to Litzman said, "The health system could wait until after the holiday. Nothing will happen if a minister is not appointed in the next week." Infighting among various groups within UTJ has intensified in recent months. While the relationship between the Lithuanian Degel Hatorah and the hassidic Agudat Yisrael has always been tense, the situation has been exacerbated by vying the hassidic sects that make up Agudat Yisrael fighting for control. In recent decades the Ger hassidim, the largest such court, have been the dominant voice in the party. However, in the past year a coalition of smaller hassidic sects known as Shlomei Emunim, which is represented by MK Meir Porush, has challenged Gur's hegemony. Last week, in an internal UTJ vote that decided the MKs' hierarchy for the purpose of distributing portfolios and government positions, Porush voted against Litzman and in favor of Degel Hatorah's MK Moshe Gafni for the coveted Knesset Finance Committee chairmanship. Porush's vote was seen as an act of revenge after Ger supported the secular Nir Barkat against Porush in November's Jerusalem Municipality elections. Meanwhile, Litzman, who lost the finance committee chairmanship, a position which has decisive control over budget matters, ended up with the "second best" position - the health portfolio. Litzman has said in the past that he would refuse the health portfolio. In consultation with the head of the Ger sect, Rabbi Ya'acov Alter, Litzman decided to try to renegotiate with the Likud to switch the health portfolio for another position. According to a Ger source, Litzman wants a deputy minister position in the Finance Ministry. However, Ya'acov Cohen (Shas) has already been appointed deputy minister in the Finance Ministry, and Shas is likely to strongly object to appointing Litzman as a second deputy there. Another option that Litzman has is to convene a larger body of Agudat Yisrael representatives and force Porush to support Litzman, his fellow Aguda MK and not Degel Hatorah's Gafni. Meanwhile, MK Menachem Moses, a representative of the Vizhnitz hassidic sect, who has experience managing hospitals, is waiting for Litzman and Ger to decide what to do with the Health Ministry. Moses has shown interest in receiving the portfolio. Netanyahu told the cabinet at the beginning of the meeting that he would soon name someone to head the health system, but declined to say who this would be or what position he or she would hold. "I will soon appoint a head of the health system so there will be a clear address," he said. Gil Hoffman contributed to this report.