Israel’s defense minister on Thursday called for an immediate halt of plans to ship surplus coronavirus vaccines to a group of friendly nations, suggesting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is using vaccines to wield international influence “behind the backs of relevant bodies.”
Netanyahu’s plan has illustrated how at a time of global shortages, the vaccine has become an asset that can be used for diplomatic gain. It also has raised questions about Israel’s decision 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.
In a letter to Netanyahu, Defense Minister Benny Gantz said Israel’s stockpile of vaccines is the property of the state and attacked the prime minister’s go-it-alone approach. He questioned the merits of the decision to give away vaccines as well as 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.”
Netanyahu, who is up for re-election 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.
Gantz called for the nation’s Security Cabinet to take up the matter and asked the country’s attorney general to investigate.
There was no immediate response from Netanyahu’s office, but it was not clear whether Gantz could prevent the vaccine shipments from going forward.
On Wednesday, Netanyahu said Israel has hundreds of thousands of surplus vaccines and announced he personally decided to share a small quantity of them with several friendly countries he did not name 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.
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.
Netanyahu’s office has not said where the vaccines are being sent. 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.
Reporting by the Associated Press.