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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.

Go deeper

Mar 3, 2021 - World

International Criminal Court opens Israel-Palestine war crimes probe

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has strongly objected to the investigation. Photo: Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images

International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor Fatou Bensouda on Wednesday announced her intention to open an investigation into crimes allegedly committed in the Palestinian territories since 2014.

Why it matters: The investigation is expected to consider possible war crimes by Israel and Hamas during the 2014 war in Gaza, as well as the construction of West Bank settlements by Israel. It could sharply increase tensions between Israel, which fiercely opposes the probe, and Palestinian leaders, who requested it.

The U.S. coronavirus vaccines aren't all the same

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The U.S. now has three COVID-19 vaccines, and public health officials are quick — and careful — to say there’s no bad option. But their effectiveness, manufacturing and distribution vary.

Why it matters: Any of the authorized vaccines are much better than no vaccine, especially for people at high risk of severe coronavirus infections. But their differences may fuel perceptions of inequity, and raise legitimate questions about the best way to use each one.

Mar 2, 2021 - World

China and Russia vaccinate the world — for now

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

While the U.S. and Europe focus on vaccinating their own populations, China and Russia are sending millions of COVID-19 vaccine doses to countries around the world.

Why it matters: China's double success in controlling its domestic outbreak and producing several viable vaccines has allowed it to focus on providing doses abroad — an effort that could help to save lives across several continents.