Gantz demands Netanyahu halt transfer of vaccines to other countries

Defense chief says PM must convene security cabinet to discuss matter, laments that decision to give away doses was made ‘behind the backs of relevant officials’

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz attend a graduation ceremony for new Air Force pilots at the Hatzerim air base near Beersheba, June 25, 2020. (Ariel Schalit/Pool/AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz attend a graduation ceremony for new Air Force pilots at the Hatzerim air base near Beersheba, June 25, 2020. (Ariel Schalit/Pool/AFP)

Defense Minister Benny Gantz on Thursday called for an immediate halt in plans to ship surplus coronavirus vaccines in Israel to various countries, accusing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of acting without oversight or transparency.

In a letter to the premier, Gantz said the decision to share vaccines was made without “discussions in the relevant forums.” He also questioned Netanyahu’s claim that Israel has surplus vaccines to give away.

“We are talking about a significant diplomatic and security decision, and in accordance with that, it needs to be approved according to procedures established by law,” Gantz said.

Gantz demanded the matter be taken up by the country’s security cabinet.

“This is not the first time that significant security and diplomatic decisions are made behind the backs of the relevant officials, with possible harm to the security of the state, foreign relations and rule of law,” Gantz added in an apparent reference to Netanyahu’s decision to leave Blue and White in the dark regarding last year’s normalization deals with Arab countries prior to their announcement.

There was no immediate comment from Netanyahu’s office.

Vials of coronavirus vaccines at a Clalit vaccination center in the northern city of Safed on February 22, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Gantz and Netanyahu are fierce rivals who battled to stalemates in three consecutive elections before agreeing last year to form an emergency coalition government. Their power-sharing arrangement quickly unraveled, and the country is heading to its fourth election in two years next month.

On Wednesday, Netanyahu announced that he had personally decided to send surplus vaccines to a series of diplomatic allies. Some 100,000 vaccine doses in all are said to be being distributed, reportedly Moderna vaccine doses that Israel has not been using.

He did not identify the countries, but a list obtained by the Kan public broadcaster suggested a number of them have supported Israel’s claim to Jerusalem as its capital. Others have close or budding relations with Israel.

The list includes 19 countries, Kan reported, while Army Radio put the number at 20. Among the countries reportedly slated to get 1-5,000 vaccine doses each is Mauritania, which has no diplomatic ties with Israel. US officials told The Times of Israel last month that Mauritania was close to normalizing relations with Israel before former US president Donald Trump’s term ended.

The new policy drew renewed criticism of Israel’s reluctance to share significant quantities of its vast stockpile of vaccines with the Palestinians.

“As the occupying power, Israel is responsible for the health of all the people under its control,” tweeted US 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.”

Critics point to the fourth Geneva Convention which requires occupying powers to provide for the health needs of the occupied, but Israel rejects the application of the statute over the West Bank and Gaza and says the Oslo Accords absolve it of responsibility over such matters, instead transferring them to the PA.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein (C) attend a ceremony for the arrival of a plane carrying a shipment of Pfizer-BioNTech anti-coronavirus vaccine, at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv on January 10, 2021. (Motti Millrod/Pool/AFP)

But health officials have noted that Israel will be unable to fully defeat the virus if Palestinians remain unvaccinated, given the regular contact between the populations. Israel has sent roughly 2,000 of its own doses to the Palestinian Authority and has pledged an additional 3,000 doses that have yet to be delivered. It has allowed the transfer of 10,000 doses of the Sputnik vaccine donated by Russia to the PA, and 2,000 those doses were transferred to the Gaza Strip last week.

The PA announced last week that Israel had agreed to vaccinate 100,000 Palestinians who work in Israel, but Jerusalem has yet to grant approval.

According to Hebrew media reports, the countries Israel is planning to provide with vaccines include Cyprus, Hungary, Guatemala, the Czech Republic, Maldives, Ethiopia, Chad, Kenya, Uganda and Guinea. Each country will receive between 1,000 and 5,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine.

According to a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office, Israel has been contacted by numerous countries with requests for vaccines. The statement didn’t name the countries or the type of vaccines that will be donated.

Both coronavirus czar Nachman Ash and Health Ministry Director-General Chezy Levy said they weren’t consulted regarding the plan. Top government ministers were also kept in the dark.

“The fact that Netanyahu is trafficking [in] the vaccines of Israeli citizens, which were paid for with their tax money, without accountability, shows that he thinks he’s running a monarchy, not a state,” Gantz tweeted on Tuesday.

He added: “Such a process requires discussion and approval. Only a security, diplomatic, or urgent medical need could justify such a process and Netanyahu must present this to the public or at the very least have it approved by the relevant forums.”

Finance Minister Israel Katz, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, also said he was unaware of any such plan. “I sign the checks and I didn’t sign off on anything like this,” Katz told Army Radio.

The reports on Netanyahu’s hopes to use coronavirus vaccines to help diplomatic relations come after Israel was said to have agreed to purchase an unknown number of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine doses for use in Syria as part of a deal for the return of an Israeli woman who was held by the Syrian regime after she crossed the border two weeks ago.

Israel’s vaccination campaign is far ahead of any other country’s worldwide. More than four and a half million Israelis, or almost 50 percent of the country’s total population, have now received the first dose of the coronavirus vaccine. Over three million Israelis have received both doses.

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