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Israel suspends delivery of vaccines to other countries amid legal uncertainty

Move comes after AG asks for clarifications on initiative, Gantz demands halt to shipments, citing poor decision-making process; plane carrying jabs from Israel lands in Honduras

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)
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)

Israel has halted its plan to ship surplus coronavirus vaccines to a group of friendly nations as authorities examine whether it was in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s authority to order the move, the Justice Ministry said Thursday.

The announcement put a freeze on a plan that reportedly would have seen up to 100,000 vaccine doses sent to numerous countries.

In a statement, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit said he had received a number of requests to review Netanyahu’s decision. One of those requests, he said, came from Netanyahu’s National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat, who told Mandelblit he had been instructed, apparently by the prime minister, to “freeze any action on the matter.”

It was the latest twist in a saga that has 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.

Earlier Thursday, Defense Minister Benny Gantz called for a halt in 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 meets actress Carmit Mesilati Kaplan, right, during a visit to the Khan theater ahead of the re-opening of the culture sector, in Jerusalem on February 23, 2021. (Ohad Zwigenberg/Pool Photo via AP)

“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.”

He demanded the matter be brought before the security cabinet for discussion and said he had asked the attorney general for an opinion.

Gantz cheered news of the plan’s suspension Thursday evening, saying it had come about “in an undemocratic manner, bypassing regulations.”

He tweeted: “If there is a reason to transfer vaccines to various countries at the expense of Israeli citizens, this will only be decided in the relevant forums. Making decisions in the dark raises concerns of harming the state’s foreign relations and security.”

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.

Despite the freeze, 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 said Tuesday that it received 5,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine from the Jewish state.

Deputy Health Minister Yoav Kisch, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, told Army Radio that Gantz was jealous “of Netanyahu’s achievements” and said Israel had more than enough vaccines to share with friends. He described the mission as a “strategic and political move at zero cost.”

On Wednesday, 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 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 seen widespread international condemnation for sharing only a small fraction of virus-fighting shots with the Palestinians.

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.

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

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.

Among the 19 countries reportedly slated to get 1,000-5,000 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.

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.

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 coronavirus vaccines, at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv on January 10, 2021. (Motti Millrod/Pool/AFP)

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.

In his Thursday 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.

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