Mar 3, 2021 - World

Israel's COVID diplomacy runs into trouble

Moderna doses from Israel arrive in Guatemala. Photo: Ohan Orodonez/AFP via Getty

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tapped Israel's stockpile of Moderna vaccines to conduct COVID diplomacy with friendly governments — without consulting the relevant government ministries.

Why it matters: Netanyahu's unilateral move may have broken Israeli law, allegedly violated Israel's contract with Moderna, and risked exposing Israel to lawsuits. He was forced to backtrack, but not before thousands of doses had already been transferred.

  • This is another example of Netanyahu attempting to run the country on his own while disregarding diplomatic protocols, his coalition partners, the Israeli bureaucracy and the limits to his own authority.
  • Driving the news: Honduras, Guatemala and the Czech republic — all of which moved their embassies to Jerusalem or announced plans to do so — got 5,000 doses each. Rwanda, which often supports Israel at the UN, received 2,000. The Palestinians also received 5,000 doses.

The big picture: Netanyahu has focused his COVID-19 strategy around vaccines. He personally negotiated with senior executives at Pfizer and Moderna, speaking with them over 30 times.

  • Netanyahu's main coalition partners were kept out of the loop, in part because the prime minister wanted full credit for the vaccination campaign in Israel's March 23 elections.
  • Israel's world-leading campaign has been waged using Pfizer jabs, leaving 100,000 Moderna shots unused.
  • Netanyahu decided to send the Moderna vaccines to Palestinian medical workers and to allied countries around the world.

Behind the scenes: Netanyahu’s office drafted a list of 20 countries that had taken pro-Israel steps in recent years or were of particular importance to Israel. He contacted them directly and proposed that they send a plane to pick up vaccines. Then, things got more complicated.

  • Most government officials only learned about Netanyahu's plans through the Israeli press. One of those officials, a legal adviser in Netanyahu's office, told Netanyahu’s national security adviser to suspend the transfers because they might be illegal.
  • When the attorney general started asking questions, it became clear that Netanyahu and his close aides hadn't consulted any relevant authorities before proceeding.

What’s next: While the move is currently suspended, it could potentially be resumed after Netanyahu's office holds consultations with the relevant ministries and gets approval both from Moderna and the Cabinet, according to the attorney general.

  • On Thursday, the prime minister of Denmark and chancellor of Austria will arrive in Israel to discuss Netanyahu’s proposal for joint vaccine facilities.
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