Israel’s Vaccines Are Political Currency For Netanyahu

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Israel has recently made news with what is being called vaccine diplomacy. Giving out small portions of its surplus Covid vaccine to at least 19 favored countries -- including Hungary, the Czech Republic, Uganda, Kenya and Mauritania – may appear an extraordinary humanitarian gesture or at least a form of strategic outreach. It is better viewed, however, as a mix of geopolitics and domestic engineering from Israel’s embattled prime minister.

Israel is less than a month away from its fourth national election in two years; a victory would make it Benjamin Netanyahu’s sixth term as prime minister. Many Israelis are suffering from Netanyahu fatigue. Polls suggest that his Likud party, now fractured, will win considerably fewer Knesset seats than it did a year ago.

Back then, his chief selling point was his close relationship with Donald Trump. During his last campaign he festooned the campaign trail with billboards of himself and Trump in a warm handshake. “Bibi, in a League of His Own,” the slogan read. President Biden, by contrast, has kept his distance, making the Israeli leader wait a month before getting in touch. That silence rang loud in Israel.

The coming election, however, turns on a single issue that is a break from the past concerns with Iran or the Palestinians or even the U.S. relationship. It is about who is best suited to lead the country out of the Covid pandemic.

Netanyahu’s record had been poor, leading Israel in and out of three national lockdowns. He has appeased the ultra-Orthodox bloc who are his core coalition partners but have also undermined pandemic management with their refusal to abide by social distancing restrictions. He has undercut his own cabinet ministers, creating the tensions that have led to the current election. He is also occupied with defending himself in a criminal case in which he is charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

But just as Britain’s vaccine roll-out has boosted Boris Johnson’s reputation, so Netanyahu’s surprise deal with Pfizer to supply Israel’s entire population and its rapid vaccination roll-out have been a game-changer for his election bid. He now brags that Israel has more than enough vaccine to inoculate every citizen. That leaves him in the enviable position of being able to send surpluses to deserving countries in return for their diplomatic support in the past and presumably the future.

The amounts here are minuscule, reportedly between 1,000 and 5,000 doses per country. This is enough to take care of the inner leadership circles in most of the recipients, no more. It is, Israeli officials admit, a symbolic gesture. It’s also a reminder to voters of how successful Netanyahu has been over the years in cultivating relations in Africa, Latin America and in former Soviet satellites.

Vaccine diplomacy has also come in handy closer to home. When an Israeli civilian was taken by Syrian authorities after wandering into Syria, the government rescued her with the purchase of what was reported to be $1 million dollars worth of Russian Sputnik vaccine on behalf of the Syrian government. Netanyahu let it be known that the transaction was carried out in a phone call he had with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In early March, he’s planning discussions of a new Pfizer plant with Chief Executive Albert Bourla in Jerusalem. That could make Israel a regional distribution center, and provide jobs to a fair number of unemployed Israelis. Netanyahu’s opponents say Pfizer is being drawn into domestic politics. 

Meanwhile, the Arabs of the West Bank are not benefiting much from this flurry of activity around the vaccines. Israel is distributing vaccine to them in the same symbolic amounts that it is giving to other, less friendly regimes. This policy is both ethically dubious and pragmatically unwise, given the large number of Palestinian workers who travel in Israel.

But offering wide vaccination to the entire population of the West Bank right now would be politically is not politically realistic. Netanyahu is a right-wing politician campaigning for right-wing votes against right-wing opponents. Most of his potential voters do not favor bailing out the often-antagonistic Palestinian leadership.

Nor is accepting aid straightforward for Palestinian leaders, who are scheduled to face elections later this year. On Wednesday, Palestinian Authority Minister of Health Mai al-Kaila explained to a reporter from Al Arabiya television that the issue is not clear cut. “As an occupying power, Israel is obligated under the fourth Geneva Convention” to offer aid the minister said, but added that “we consider ourselves to be an independent state and want to depend on ourselves.” 

Vaccine diplomacy is, like all things connected to Covid-19, complicated. Israel has successfully pioneered mass inoculation. The efficacy of the vaccine in foreign policy and domestic politics is an experiment that is now underway.  

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Zev Chafets is a journalist and author of 14 books. He was a senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the founding managing editor of the Jerusalem Report Magazine.

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