State comptroller slams Netanyahu for sealing Pfizer COVID vaccine deal by himself

Ombudsman says PM should have involved the ‘Corona cabinet’ that was set up to oversee Israel’s response to pandemic, criticizes ex-PM Bennett for also acting alone

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the arrival of a DHL freight plane transporting the first batch of Pfizer vaccines at Ben Gurion Airport on December 9, 2020. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the arrival of a DHL freight plane transporting the first batch of Pfizer vaccines at Ben Gurion Airport on December 9, 2020. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)

The state comptroller issued a report Tuesday on the country’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis, criticizing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for making major decisions without the approval of his coronavirus cabinet that was set up to oversee Israel’s response to the pandemic.

The report covered the period of 2020 to 2023 when the virus pandemic peaked and then faded away as Israel and other countries embraced mass vaccination programs.

State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman said that Netanyahu made a key deal with the Pfizer company to give it exclusivity over providing COVID vaccines to Israel through March 2021, and did not update or consult the COVID cabinet. The deal was closed between Netanyahu and Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla over the phone but the cabinet was “not informed of the strategic move.”

“Along with the benefits to the State of Israel, this is a decision that at the time involved risks to public health, even if these were calculated risks,” he wrote.

During the COVID-19 outbreak, and in response to heavy lobbying from Netanyahu, Pfizer agreed to provide Israel with enough Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines to inoculate the country of 9.3 million people. In return, Israel agreed to share data from its vaccination campaign with Pfizer.

Israel vaccinated over three-quarters of its adult population in just over three months. Infection rates plummeted, allowing the country to reopen its economy after most public sites were closed to prevent the virus from spreading. The vaccination campaign was widely seen as a success.

State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman at the Federation of Local Authorities conference in Tel Aviv, December 7, 2022. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Though Netanyahu did consult with some senior officials, such as then-health minister Yuli Edelstein, and other Health Ministry figures, as well as then-Israeli ambassador to the US Ron Dermer, the so-called corona cabinet was not kept in the loop other than two general updates about the contacts that were being made. During one conversation, a decision was made against bringing the matter to the corona cabinet over concerns that details of the vaccine negotiations would be leaked to the media.

While appreciating the time-sensitive and critical nature of the vaccine move, Englman said it should not have been made by a single figure “without agreement by the government.” He rejected that the deal needed to be kept secret to prevent details being leaked, writing that the proper response would be to “establish a limited and qualified forum which will allow a quick decision to be made, in an efficient and optimal manner and while maintaining confidentiality.”

He also criticized similar measures taken by then-prime minister Naftali Bennett, who succeeded Netanyahu, who also made major COVID-related decisions without consulting his COVID cabinet, one of which involved a NIS 170 million plan for managing corona activities and another related to preparations for a possible fifth wave of virus infections. Amid the COVID-19 outbreak, Israel went through a series of elections that saw Bennett replace Netanyahu, then lose his seat to the latter in another vote.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu receives a coronavirus vaccine, from his personal physician Dr. Tzvi Berkovitz, at Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, on December 19, 2020, becoming the first Israeli to get the vaccine. (Amir Cohen/Pool/AFP)

The Prime Minister’s Office responded to the report in a statement saying that Netanyahu’s actions made Israel the first country in the world to exit the pandemic and “saved many lives and boosted Israel’s economy.”

Noting that Englman also recognized that the prime minister’s policies saved lives, the statement stressed that Netanyahu worked with the Health Ministry and its professionals “and also consulted with various leaders around the world who dealt with the pandemic.”

The Health Ministry in a statement said that Israel was the first country to vaccinate its population and “led a magnificent vaccination campaign” that was the first to identify side-effects and took decisions that served as an example to the rest of the world. It also noted that Pfizer was never given exclusivity to provide Israel with vaccines and that inoculations produced by other companies were also purchased and used.

A statement on behalf of Bennett said that the former prime minister had a policy to open up Israel’s economy as much as possible and that he “personally managed the complex campaign against two waves of Corona. This was to make quick decisions and rescue the country from the series of closures that severely damaged businesses, students, and the entire public.”

The need for proper cabinet approval of fateful decisions is “even more true at this time” with the country in the midst of a war, Englman noted in his report, referring to the ongoing offensive against the Palestinian terror group Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

War erupted on October 7 when Hamas led a massive cross-border attack on Israel that killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians. Gunmen also abducted 252 people of all ages who were taken as hostages to Gaza. Israel responded with a military offensive to destroy Hamas and free the hostages.

Netanyahu has found himself denying accusations that he and his coalition allies were avoiding reaching an agreement that would bring the hostages home while halting the fighting. The three-member war cabinet, which includes Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, and Minister Benny Gantz is also said to be divided on the matter. Gantz has issued a June ultimatum to Netanyahu demanding clear plans on key aspects of the war, while Gallant has also directly challenged the prime minister about the future of the Gaza Strip.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett receives his third COVID-19 vaccine shot at Meir Medical Center in Kfar Saba, on August 20, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Englman recommended establishing a comprehensive body to manage future crises and that a government decision regulate the delegation of powers to ministerial committees for making significant decisions. He also recommended that the Prime Minister’s Office and the Justice Ministry formulate a procedure to regulate decision-making by a very limited forum during a crisis to maintain secrecy and allow quick decisions to be made, similar to the current war cabinet model.

In addition, Englman issued a second report slamming the government for failing to make any progress toward lowering the number of traffic deaths each year.

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