Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu clashed with his political foe and Defense Minister, Benny Gantz, blaming him for delaying government approval for purchasing additional COVID-19 vaccines.
After mostly disappearing from public view for a week, Netanyahu on Tuesday released a video warning that Israel will lose its ability to get vaccines in the future if funding to buy more vaccines is not approved by the so-called coronavirus cabinet.
Gantz, the head of the Blue and White party, called off a Monday cabinet meeting in which ministers were set to vote on a NIS 7 billion ($2.1 billion) spending package on coronavirus vaccines amid fresh squabbling between Likud and Blue and White.
Netanyahu has refused to bring up for a vote Gantz’s choice for justice minister, a position Gantz is currently filling. His interim appointment ends on Thursday, after which time Israel will have no justice minister if no appointment is approved. In response, Gantz refused to convene the cabinet to discuss the vaccine acquisition, saying Netanyahu and Likud’s refusal to fill the post “will bring harm to the rule of law and democracy.”
Netanyahu said Tuesday, “We have to order millions more vaccines now, but the good news I can tell you with high confidence is that the vaccines we order will also be good to give to our kids.”
“Unfortunately, there is someone who is holding up government approval and the acquisition of these vaccines and that’s very dangerous because instead of being in front of other countries, we could lose our place in line and the vaccines that should have gone to us will go to some other countries and we’ll be without,” he said.
Netanyahu had not made any public appearances since a 3 a.m. speech at a Likud event following last week’s election.
“Netanyahu, you left the bunker, and it’s to lie?” Gantz responded to Netanyahu in a tweet. “You are suffocating our democracy in order to escape [your] trial, and trying to leave Israel with no Justice Minister,” he said.
“If the country is more important to you than your trial, come and convene the government and approve everything necessary, today,” Gantz said.
The Health Ministry expressed concern on Tuesday over the stalled approval for more vaccines and Pfizer, the drug company that has supplied Israel’s vaccines, was frustrated by the hold-up.
Israel has enough vaccines to fully inoculate the remaining unvaccinated population and to give a single shot to recovered COVID-19 patients, Health Ministry Director-General Chezy Levy said. However, he said Israel needed a continuing supply of shots and wanted to “get ahead of the rest of the world.”
Levy explained that currently it is not known how many vaccine boosters individuals may need to stay protected from the virus in the long run.
In an interview with Army Radio, Levy confirmed an earlier report that Pfizer is getting frustrated with the Israeli delay.
A Monday report said that Netanyahu spoke with Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla about the delay in securing the budget. According to Channel 13, Netanyahu asked Bourla to be patient while Israel agrees on the procurement of additional vaccines.
“There will certainly be a cost to this. I assume they are turning to other places, and we could be shunted to another place in line,” Levy said. “We need to ensure our place for 2022.”
According to Health Ministry data released Tuesday, 5,234,553 Israelis — some 56% of the total population — have received the first vaccine dose, of whom 4,760,630 (51%) have also received the second.
Currently, several million Israelis are ineligible for the vaccine, most of them under the age of 16.
The canceled cabinet meeting would have been the first since the March 23 elections, the fourth in two years, which were called after the Likud-Blue and White unity government collapsed in December.
The spat between Likud and Blue and White came days after Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit sent Netanyahu a letter urging him to allow the appointment of a permanent justice minister.
“A situation in which the Justice Ministry is left without a permanent minister will cause severe damage to the ministry’s work and the functioning of the government,” Mandelblit wrote to Netanyahu, who is on trial on corruption charges.
Under the coalition deal between Netanyahu and Gantz — which remains in effect until a new government is sworn in following the election — the Justice Ministry is under the purview of Gantz’s bloc of the government. He can select whom he wishes to head the portfolio, and Netanyahu has no say in the matter. However, Netanyahu can block a cabinet vote on such an appointment, which he has apparently been doing for months now.
Netanyahu and Gantz have fought over control of the dysfunctional power-sharing government since it was formed last May, but their struggles have become even more pronounced since their agreement collapsed in December.
On Thursday the High Court of Justice ruled that Netanyahu must abide by conflict of interest rules laid out by Mandelblit and cannot intervene in the appointment of senior law enforcement and justice officials.
Under Mandelblit’s arrangement, Netanyahu cannot be involved in any matters that affect witnesses or other defendants in his graft trial, or in legislation that would impact the legal proceedings against him.
Netanyahu’s lawyers have argued that the attorney general does not have the authority to enforce the conflict of interest arrangement without the consent of the prime minister.
Netanyahu faces charges of fraud and breach of trust in three cases, as well as bribery in one of them. He has denied wrongdoing and claimed that the charges are an effort by political rivals, the media, law enforcement, and prosecutors to remove him from office.
The evidentiary stage of the trial is set to start on April 5, having been postponed until after the elections.
Last week’s election ended in deadlock, with neither Netanyahu and his allies, nor his rivals, emerging with a clear path to forming a government.