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Israel said renewing vaccine diplomacy, to send extra shots to friendly nations

After original move was halted by Justice Ministry, Israel reportedly to send 100,000 surplus Moderna doses to 20 countries and Sinai peacekeepers

Boxes containing the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine are prepared to be shipped at the McKesson distribution center in Olive Branch, Mississippi, Dec. 20, 2020. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya, Pool)
Boxes containing the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine are prepared to be shipped at the McKesson distribution center in Olive Branch, Mississippi, Dec. 20, 2020. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya, Pool)

Israel is renewing a plan to supply surplus coronavirus vaccines to a group of friendly nations, the Kan public broadcaster reported on Monday.

The report came two weeks after the effort was halted by legal officials, who said that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not have the authority to authorize the moves without consulting with the cabinet.

Israel is now negotiating with 20 countries and Moderna to send up to 100,000 vaccine doses abroad, according to criteria laid out by the attorney general, the report said, noting that there was some urgency to the move as the doses were due to expire by the end of May.

Israel has surplus doses that it purchased from Moderna before signing an agreement with Pfizer for rapid delivery of enough doses to inoculate the entire population in exchange for sharing the medical data with Pfizer.

It was the latest twist in a saga that has raised questions 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.

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 the Israeli city of Tel Aviv on January 10, 2021. (Motti Millrod/Pool/AFP)

Announcing the initial plan, Netanyahu said Israel has hundreds of thousands of surplus vaccine doses and he had 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.”

Even though the plan was frozen, one delivery had already landed in Honduras, the country’s President Juan Orlando Hernandez announced, saying the doses will go to frontline workers. The Czech Republic also said that it received 5,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine from the Jewish state.

Kan said that among other countries expected to receive doses were Cyprus, Mauritania, Hungary, Guatemala, the Maldives, San Marino, Ethiopia, Chad, Kenya, Uganda and Guinea. Each was expected to get some 5,000 doses.

US officials told The Times of Israel last month that Mauritania, which has no diplomatic ties with Israel, was close to normalizing relations with Jerusalem before former US president Donald Trump’s term ended.

Israel would also supply coronavirus vaccines to the multinational force of peacekeepers stationed in the Sinai Peninsula, following a request from the US. The request to provide the 14-nation Multinational Force and Observers (MFO)  peacekeeping force with some 2,400 vaccines was received by the Defense Ministry and approved by the relevant legal authorities, Kan reported.

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.

Israel on Monday also began vaccinating some 120,000 Palestinians who have permits to work inside Israel and the West Bank settlements.

A medic administers a Moderna COVID-19 vaccine to a fellow medic during a campaign to vaccinate front-line medical workers, at the health ministry, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on Feb. 3, 2021. (AP/Nasser Nasser)

The move to vaccinate Palestinian workers comes as the West Bank is seeing a rapid rise in coronavirus infections. There are currently 17,989 active coronavirus cases in the West Bank, one of the highest levels since the beginning of the pandemic.

Large swaths of the Palestinian Authority entered total lockdown over the weekend in an attempt to curb the rising infection rates, as hospitals reached full capacity in Ramallah and Bethlehem.

While Israel has vaccinated over 5 million of its citizens, the Palestinian Authority has yet to receive a single major vaccine shipment. Of the doses that did reach Ramallah, a substantial number were allegedly taken by those with connections to the PA elite.

Aaron Boxerman and agencies contributed to this report.

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