Israel pauses 'vaccine diplomacy' campaign after wave of criticism

James Rothwell
·2-min read
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talks to the media during a visit to the Fitness gym ahead of the re-opening of the branch in Petah Tikva, Israel - Tal Shahar, Yediot Ahronot/AP Photo
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talks to the media during a visit to the Fitness gym ahead of the re-opening of the branch in Petah Tikva, Israel - Tal Shahar, Yediot Ahronot/AP Photo

Israel has halted a so-called vaccine diplomacy campaign that would give jabs to countries which recognise its claim to sovereignty over Jerusalem, following a backlash from senior officials and ministers.

Benjamin Netanyahu, who is seeking re-election in March, said this week that he would send vaccines to countries such as the Czech Republic, Guatemala, Honduras and Hungary, as an apparent reward for opening diplomatic missions in Jerusalem.

The gesture is controversial as both Israel and the Palestinians claim Jerusalem as their capital, which is why most countries base their ambassadors in Israel in Tel Aviv.

But it has also infuriated Mr Netanyahu’s coalition partner, defence minister Benny Gantz, who accused the prime minister of making important decisions without consulting the relevant authorities.

“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,” Mr Gantz said.

“This is a pattern which impinges upon our ability to manage the country soundly.”

The Israeli justice ministry announced on Thursday that it was conducting a legal review into whether Mr Netanyahu had the authority to personally launch the campaign without consulting senior officials. One vaccine shipment has already arrived in Venezuela and another in the Czech Republic, which says it received 5,000 doses.

Another major bone of contention is Mr Netanyahu’s pledge to share vaccines with far-flung foreign countries while the Palestinian territories are still lagging far behind Israel in terms of the number of administered doses.

An Israeli disguised as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, walks past a fellow protester during a rally against the premier  - Jack Guez/AFP
An Israeli disguised as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, walks past a fellow protester during a rally against the premier - Jack Guez/AFP

"This is not diplomacy. This is a new level of political corruption," tweeted Husam Zomlot, a senior Palestinian diplomat, in response to Mr Netanyahu's plans.

While Israel has sent at least 2,000 vaccine doses to Palestinian leaders, with more reportedly on the way, human rights groups say this does not go far enough.

They point out that Israel is obligated to provide medical support to the Palestinians under international law, though Israel, citing the 1990s-era Oslo Accords, says vaccinations are solely the responsibility of Palestinian leaders.

Israel has already vaccinated 50 per cent of its entire population with one dose, while the majority of over-60s have received both doses. In contrast, fewer than 10,000 doses have been given to Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, which have a combined population of four million.

The speedy vaccines drive in Israel is a key pillar in Mr Netanyahu’s re-election campaign as he gears up for polling day on March 23.