Why is Netanyahu giving away thousands of Israel’s vaccines?

A number of questions arise from this 'vaccine diplomacy', writes Anshel Pfeffer


People receives a Covid-19 vaccine injection, at Clalit Covid-19 vaccination center in Jerusalem, on February 25, 2021. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90 *** Local Caption *** ??? ???? ??????? ???? ?????? ????? ???? ????? ????? ?????? ???????

February 25, 2021 13:11

The first sign that an unorthodox diplomatic initiative was afoot was on Tuesday afternoon, when the presidential aircraft of the republic of Honduras suddenly landed at Ben Gurion Airport. Not a place which has seen much movement in recent weeks. But President Juan Orlando Hernandez was not on the plane, which had arrived empty from Tegucigalpa, via stopovers in Miami, Goose Bay and Paris.

Honduras was the first beneficiary of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to start distributing Israel’s surplus Covid-19 doses around the world. President Hernandez’s plane flew back with 5,000 doses. Military transport from Slovakia landed soon afterwards, for its own consignment.

Israel’s interests in bolstering the ties with these two countries are clear. Honduras is one of only three countries who have moved their embassies to Jerusalem. Slovakia is a member of the Visegrad Group, an alliance of four European Union members which routinely support Israel in EU forums (two other members of the group, Hungary and the Czech Republic, are also expected to receive surplus vaccines from Israel). But a number of questions arise from this “vaccine diplomacy.”

The first is whether Israel does indeed have a surplus of vaccines. “Our stockpile is way beyond what the citizens of Israel need and we have more than enough to help others,” said Mr Netanyahu when asked on Tuesday. Health Ministry officials say that they are currently assured of receiving ten million doses from Pfizer, or enough for five million people.

Over seven million of these have already been used. Mr Netanyahu has promised that Israel has agreements with Pfizer that additional shipments will continue arriving on time and so far Pfizer has indeed given Israel preferential treatment. But will that remain the case, as pressure on the pharmaceutical giant increases from dozens of countries and Israel has already vaccinated a majority of its population?

Under these circumstances, the question is: who made the decision to distribute doses to other countries? Cabinet members were not consulted. Neither were the foreign and justice ministries (both of which are controlled by Blue and White).

Mr Netanyahu insists that it was his decision to make, but legal sources believe that a decision to export assets such as vaccines would have had to be approved by cabinet. “Israel was compensated for these vaccines even before they were sent,” Mr Netanyahu said on Wednesday. “Everything we give others does not come at the expense of Israeli citizens. These are symbolic numbers that we give different countries. I make the decision and I think it is considered.”

The “symbolic numbers” also raise a question. The shipments of a few thousand doses will not make any difference to the spread of the pandemic in the countries which are receiving them. Mr Netanyahu’s aides insist that they are “for medical teams,” but these few doses are still insufficient for that. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that in at least some of the countries, they will be used by the ruling elites.

And then there’s the question of Israel’s most immediate neighbours, nearly five million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Putting aside the issue of whether Israel has responsibility for their healthcare as an occupying power under the Fourth Geneva Convention, hundreds of thousands of Israelis and Palestinians come in to daily contact on both sides of the Green Line, and the West Bank is currently undergoing its own third wave of Covid-19 infections. Israel has to date given the Palestinian Authority two thousand doses and promised another three thousand. Public health officials argue it’s in Israel’s interest to help vaccinate the Palestinians, but their voices weren’t heard when the prime minister decided to start sending tens of thousands of vaccines around the world.

No pledge, No way

Mr Netanyahu may currently be able to do whatever he wants with Israel’s vaccine stockpile, but his potential future coalition is looking a lot less compliant. This week he asked the leaders of the three parties that openly support him to sign a pledge of allegiance that after the election they will not only support him as prime minister but also undertake not to hold separate coalition talks with other parties, allowing Likud to negotiate on behalf of “the bloc.”

The strictly-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism duly signed up. But “Religious Zionism,” the joint list of far-right parties lead by Bezalel Smotrich, refused to, presenting the prime minister with their own list of principles and commitments instead. “We have no intention to sign ‘loyalty letters’ that have been proven meaningless in the past and have not brought about right-wing governments,” the party responded.

Mr Smotrich, who in the previous election ran as part of the Yamina list, is still smarting at the way Mr Netanyahu left them out in the cold when he formed a coalition with Blue and White and Labour, despite Yamina leader Naftali Bennett having signed the previous version of the pledge of allegiance.

If Religious Zionism passes the electoral threshold to the next Knesset, it has no other choice of a government but one lead by Mr Netanyahu. Any other coalition permutation includes centre-left parties which will never join with a party that includes the Jewish Power supremacist disciples of Rabbi Meir Kahane. But Mr Smotrich and his colleagues are anxious to show that they are not in the prime minister’s pocket and in doing so are underlining Mr Netanyahu’s biggest problem going in to the election: without them, he has absolutely no chance of forming a coalition. He is at the mercy of the far-right.

Three into one won’t go

Not that the prime minister’s erstwhile opponents don’t have enough problems of their own. The recent polls show not only that the parties currently opposed to Mr Netanyahu will have a majority in the next Knesset, but that they could probably even form a coalition of only “Zionist” parties — that is without the Joint List, which is unpalatable to the anti-Netanyahu right-wingers of New Hope, Yamina and Yisrael Beiteinu. That doesn’t mean, however, that then they can get together.

The two rivals for leadership of the right-wing anti-Netanyahu bloc, Yamina’s Naftali Bennett and New Hope leader Gideon Sa’ar spent last week sniping at each other that they would “defect” and go into coalition with Netanyahu. This week, they seem to have reached an unofficial ceasefire and ganged up instead on the third potential leader of the next government, Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid. “Yamina won’t sit in a government lead by the left including Lapid as prime minister,” said Mr Bennett on Wednesday morning. “Ultimately, we won’t sit in a government lead by the left.” He wouldn’t rule out, however, having Lapid in a government lead by him.

Hours later, during a campaign tour in the Negev, Mr Sa’ar pressed on, saying that “there’s no possibly of a government lead by Lapid. Therefore, there are only two alternatives: a continuation government lead by Netanyahu, or a stable government lead by me.”

Mr Lapid hasn’t responded. In private, he says that he knows that the coalition he hopes to lead “will be a coalition from hell,” as it will span the political spectrum from the right-wing parties to Labour and Meretz on the left, but that it’s the only alternative to a Netanyahu government.

Perhaps. After all, if the last election taught us anything, it’s that promises not to sit in someone else’s government are worthless before the vote. And the numbers are on Mr Lapid’s side, as all the polls show his party, Yesh Atid, winning more seats than New Hope or Yamina. But that still doesn’t make him prime minister, even if Mr Netanyahu fails to muster a majority.

One scenario gaining credence in political circles is the two right-wing leaders, Sa’ar and Bennett, joining forces immediately after the election, creating a larger party than Yesh Atid and asking Mr Lapid and others to join a government under their duumvirate. It is an intriguing scenario in which not only Yesh Atid but Labour and Meretz will have to choose between serving in a government lead by a staunchly right-wing pair, or risking the prospect of yet another Netanyahu government. Or even a fifth consecutive election.

February 25, 2021 13:11

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive