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AG: Ministers should have say in transfers of vaccines to other countries

Mandelblit questions legality of Netanyahu deciding alone to give away doses, notes he wasn’t asked for a legal opinion until some vaccines had already been shipped

Illustrative: Palestinian medics unpack Moderna COVID-19 vaccines and supplies that are designated for front-line medical workers, at the health ministry, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, February 3, 2021. The Palestinian Authority has administered its first known coronavirus vaccinations after receiving several thousands of doses of the Moderna vaccine from Israel. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)
Illustrative: Palestinian medics unpack Moderna COVID-19 vaccines and supplies that are designated for front-line medical workers, at the health ministry, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, February 3, 2021. The Palestinian Authority has administered its first known coronavirus vaccinations after receiving several thousands of doses of the Moderna vaccine from Israel. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit on Monday said any transfer of coronavirus vaccines to another country should be deliberated by the cabinet or another decision-making body, in a legal opinion questioning the legality of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to give away doses without ministerial approval.

Netanyahu last week halted a plan to send vaccines to numerous countries, after acknowledging that he had decided on the move alone. Some 21,000 doses of Moderna’s vaccine were already shipped out before the plan was frozen, according to Hebrew media reports.

In a letter Monday to Meir Ben-Shabbat, Netanyahu’s national security adviser, Mandelblit noted he was not asked for a legal opinion until some doses were already given away and that he lacked significant details about the plan, “including its objectives, the compensation that was given or promised, the official who conversed with the foreign countries and so on.”

Mandelblit said any transfer of vaccines must adhere to a law on state property and be decided on as a part of a “proper and full government procedure in consultation with the Finance Ministry,” and that the relevant ministers hold deliberations on the matter.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, speaks with then-cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit during the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, September 21, 2014. (AP/Menahem Kahana, Pool/File)

Therefore, Mandelblit said, he recommended the issue be discussed by the cabinet, the security cabinet or other relevant forum.

“The treatment of the matter must be done with full legal oversight… from beginning to end,” Mandelblit wrote.

In order to resume the vaccine transfers, the attorney general said he believed it was necessary to first consult with the ministers of foreign affairs and finance, respectively, on the list of countries set to receive vaccines and any budgetary aspects.

In response to Mandelblit’s letter, Ben-Shabbat was expected to claim it never occurred to him that the plan needed legal approval, the Kan public broadcaster reported.

The National Security Council will also reportedly say that it sent the Foreign Ministry a list of countries a week before the first shipment, but never received a response.

National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat speaks during a press conference about the coronavirus, at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, on March 25, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Mandelblit said Thursday that he had received a number of requests to review Netanyahu’s decision to give vaccines to other countries, including from Ben-Shabbat, who told the attorney general he had been instructed, apparently by the prime minister, to “freeze any action on the matter.”

Defense Minister Benny Gantz had earlier called to halt 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.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the arrival of over 100,000 doses of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine, at Ben Gurion Airport on December 9, 2020. (Abir Sultan/Pool Photo via AP)

Before freezing the plan, Netanyahu said Israel has hundreds of thousands of surplus vaccines and announced he had personally decided to share a small quantity of them with several friendly countries that he did not name, as a mostly symbolic thank you “in return for things we already have received.”

The suspension of the program marked the latest twist in a saga that 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, 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 with at least one dose in just under two months.

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