JERUSALEM – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's controversial plan to ship surplus coronavirus vaccines to a group of allied nations was frozen Thursday following a legal challenge to the deal, his office announced.
It was the latest twist in a saga that has raised questions at home about Netanyahu’s decision-making authority as well as his move to help far-flung nations in Africa and Latin America at a time when the neighboring Palestinian territories are struggling to secure their own vaccine supplies. The plan has also illustrated how at a time of global shortages, the vaccine has become an asset that can be used for diplomatic gain.
Netanyahu announced on Wednesday that he had personally decided to share small quantities of surplus Israeli vaccines with allied nations. He did not identify the countries, but an Israeli TV station said they included a number of nations that have supported Israel's claims to the contested city of Jerusalem as its capital.
Netanyahu's governing partner and rival, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, on Thursday called for a halt in the shipments, saying Israel’s stockpile of vaccines is the property of the state. He attacked the prime minister’s go-it-alone approach and questioned Netanyahu’s claims that there are really excess supplies when Israelis still have not been fully vaccinated.
“This is not the first time that significant defense and diplomatic decisions are being made behind the backs of the relevant bodies, while possibly damaging our national security, our foreign relations, and the rule of law,” Gantz wrote. “This is a pattern which impinges upon our ability to manage the country soundly.”
He demanded the matter be brought before the country’s Security Cabinet for discussions and said he had asked the attorney general for an opinion.
Late Thursday, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit said he had received a number of requests to review Netanyahu's decision. One of those requests, he said, came from Netanyahu's national security adviser, who told him he had been instructed to "freeze any action on the matter."
An official in Netanyahu's office confirmed that the national security adviser had asked for the delay in response to the legal challenge. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to talk to the media.
Despite the freeze, Israel’s Army radio station reported that one delivery had already landed in Honduras.
Netanyahu, who is up for reelection on March 23, has staked his political success on Israel’s successful vaccination drive, in which about half of the country’s 9.3 million people have been inoculated in just under two months.
Deputy Health Minister Yoav Kisch, a member of Netanyahu's Likud party, told army radio that Gantz was jealous “of Netanyahu's achievements” and said Israel had more than enough vaccines to share with friends. He described the mission as a “strategic and political move at zero cost.”
Netanyahu said Wednesday that Israel has hundreds of thousands of surplus vaccines. He said some extras were being shared in response to requests from allies as a mostly symbolic thank-you “in return for things we already have received.”
The revelation was striking because Israel has received widespread international condemnation for sharing only a small fraction of virus-fighting shots with the Palestinians. Israeli this month shared just 2,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine with the Palestinian Authority to immunize front-line medical workers.
“As the occupying power, Israel is responsible for the health of all the people under its control,” tweeted U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders. “It is outrageous that Netanyahu would use spare vaccines to reward his foreign allies while so many Palestinians in the occupied territories are still waiting.”
U.N. officials and human rights groups say Israel is an occupying power responsible for the well-being of the Palestinians. Israel says that under interim peace accords from the 1990s it has no such obligations. It notes that it has vaccinated its own Arab population, including Palestinians who live in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem.
A list obtained by an Israeli TV station included a number of nations that have supported Israel’s claim to Jerusalem, including Honduras, Guatemala and the Czech Republic. African countries with close or budding relations with Israel also appeared, including Chad, Mauritania, Uganda and Kenya.
In his letter, Gantz noted that the decision to share vaccines with the Palestinians was made after consultations involving various government ministries. He said he could not understand why Netanyahu's latest move was “never broached in relevant forums.”
Gantz and Netanyahu are fierce rivals who battled to stalemates in three consecutive elections before agreeing last year to form an emergency government.
Their power-sharing arrangement was beset by mutual distrust, highlighted by Netanyahu's moves to reach a number of diplomatic pacts with Arab countries last year without informing Gantz ahead of time.
In December, their coalition collapsed, and the country is heading to its fourth election in two years next month.
Netanyahu's Likud is projected to be the largest party in parliament after the election, but it is not clear whether he and his hardline allies will control a majority of seats. Gantz's Blue and White party, meanwhile, has plummeted and is struggling to win the minimum number of votes to remain in parliament.