Israel Pulse

How an Australia extradition case threatens Netanyahu

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Article Summary
The alleged involvement of Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman in attempts to prevent the extradition to Australia of an ultra-Orthodox woman suspected of serious sexual crimes, threatens the political clout of Benjamin Netanyahu's ultra-Orthodox coalition partners.

The Feb. 14 statement by the Israel Police regarding the interrogation of Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman at the fraud division sent a shock wave through the leadership of the ultra-Orthodox political parties. The police suspect that Litzman’s aides approached senior psychiatrists in his name and demanded, using threats, that they write an assessment declaring Malka Leifer, former principal of a school in Melbourne, Australia, unfit to stand trial. They allegedly did so to prevent Leifer's extradition to Australia, where she is accused of sex crimes against minors. Leifer belongs to the Ger Hasidic, the largest and most influential of the ultra-Orthodox sects and in which Litzman is a leading figure.

The investigation into Litzman has shaken his status as one of the three most prominent ultra-Orthodox political leaders in Israel, and if it leads to his indictment, the case could diminish his political power and perhaps even weaken the ultra-Orthodox camp as a whole. Even more, the case could have far-reaching consequences for the April 9 elections and beyond.

Litzman is considered the most hard-line figure among the ultra-Orthodox leadership on matters of religion and state, a stance that in recent years has produced several crises for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. These included the ultra-Orthodox demanding that repair work on the rail system scheduled for the Sabbath be moved to a weekday despite the disruption it would cause for rail traffic and passengers; the ultra-Orthodox pushing a conversion law to block the recognition of conversions to Judaism by rabbis outside the Orthodox stream; and Litzman vehemently opposing an enlistment law on ultra-Orthodox serving in the military in contrast to Aryeh Deri and Moshe Gafni, his fellow leaders in the ultra-Orthodox leadership. 

Following reports of Litzman's interrogation, Litzman released a statement claiming that he had only looked into a request for his help regarding Leifer and that after he received a legal opinion on the issue, he had ceased involvement in the matter. 

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The police, however, have testimony by state psychiatrists, including the Jerusalem district psychiatrist, Yaakov Charnes, stating that they were pressured, including threatened with removal from their positions, if they failed to declare Leifer unfit to stand trial. According to a Channel 11 report, Litzman himself met with Charnes and spoke to him about the issue, and Charnes declined three times to sign an opinion opposing the assessment that Leifer is feigning mental illness to evade prosecution.

The Jewish community of Australia is supporting the Australian government's demand for Leifer's extradition. Miriam Kuttner, president of the Australia Jewish Medical Federation, sent a complaint to the Ethics Committee of the Israel Medical Union, but the office refrained from discussing the complaint because of the ongoing judicial process regarding Leifer’s possible extradition. 

Leifer, who fled to Israel in 2008, is accused of 74 counts of rape and sexual assault of three sisters who were her students. Authorities in Australia presented a request for extradition when they issued an indictment against her after completing an investigation almost five years ago. Since then, Leifer’s associates in the ultra-Orthodox community and in the Ger Hasidic sect have been waging a battle to prevent her extradition.

One leader of the Ger Hasidim told Al-Monitor that the battle is not based on Leifer’s claim that she is innocent. In addition, the sect is not opposed to her imprisonment in Israel. Rather, the community’s fight against her extradition stems from the Jewish tradition of aiding Jewish prisoners and detainees.

Leifer has been arrested and released several times and is currently in custody. Leifer's lawyers are trying to obtain her release on the ground that an Israel Prison Service assessment shows that she suffers from psychological problems and is not fit to be detained. Leifer's mental condition has not, however, prevented an ultra-Orthodox school in the town of Emmanuel from employing her as a teacher, according to the headmaster of the chain of schools.

Danny Lam, president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, said in an interview with Reshet Bet radio that even a request from the prime minister of Australia to the prime minister of Israel has not helped in moving the proceedings against Leifer forward. He attributes this situation to Litzman’s political clout.

The investigation into Litzman is not surprising in itself, since he is known among the ultra-Orthodox and the general public as someone who does not hesitate to work the system he oversees for the benefit of his associates. With the revelation of Litzman's interrogation, however, senior sources in the health system have begun to expose Litzman’s involvement in professional matters to benefit his associates, such as cutting wait times and arranging special conditions at health care facilities. For instance, a year ago at Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital, several patients were moved from rooms adjacent to the one occupied by the grand rabbi of the Ger sect, Yaakov Alter, to accommodate his entourage. 

An ultra-Orthodox member of the Knesset who spoke to Al-Monitor on the condition of anonymity remarked that Litzman has transformed Agudat Yisrael, one of the two parties comprising Yahadut HaTorah, from a moderating influence that integrates into Israeli life into one of the most extreme ultra-Orthodox parties. This has been done to the extent of Litzman adopting positions of some of the anti-Zionist factions among the ultra-Orthodox.

For the moment, it remains unclear whether and when the prosecution will decide on an indictment against Litzman in the Leifer case, but according to the Knesset member, if the case ends with Litzman exiting the political arena, whoever replaces him will likely be much more pragmatic and willing to resolve problems through compromise. The source specifically noted the insult to American Jews stemming from Litzman’s stubborn stance rejecting conversions by certain rabbis deemed unacceptable by him and his associates. “Litzman caused Netanyahu to quarrel with allies [leaders of American Jewry] who are important to Israel’s status in the world,” he said. 

The investigation of Litzman is worrisome as well for Netanyahu, who was even briefed about it while attending the Warsaw Summit this month. Netanyahu is occupied with maintaining the support of the ultra-Orthodox and other right-wing parties so they will join a coalition under his leadership following the April elections even if he is indicted on charges of corruption. So far, HaBayit HaYehudi, the New Right, Yisrael Beitenu and the ultra-Orthodox parties have announced that they would indeed agree to a coalition in that circumstance.

According to polls, the right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties together could win 58 to 65 mandates (with 61 needed for a majority coalition). A decline in the power of Litzman’s Yahadut HaTorah could decrease the chances of Netanyahu being able to corral enough support to form the next government. 

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Danny Zaken is a journalist who works for the Israeli public radio station Kol Israel. Zaken has covered military and security affairs, West Bank settlers and Palestinian topics. He was a Knight Wallace fellow at the University of Michigan and completed the BBC Academy's journalism program. Zaken lecturers on media and journalism at the Hebrew University, the Mandel School and the Interdiscinplinary Center Herzliya. He is the former chair of the Jerusalem Journalists Association.

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