JERUSALEM (AP) – As for receiving hard-to-reach coronavirus vaccines, Israel’s friends have found that the road seems to pass through Jerusalem.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu admitted on Wednesday that he shares coronavirus vaccines with a number of friendly countries that have benefited Israel in the past. Although he did not identify the countries, a list obtained by Israeli television suggests that a number of them supported Israel’s claim to the disputed city of Jerusalem as its capital.
The comments came at a time when Israel is facing international criticism for not doing more to share its huge stockpile of vaccines with the Palestinians. They also illustrated how the vaccine became an asset during a global shortage which can be used for diplomatic gain.
“As an occupying power, Israel is responsible for the health of all people under its control,”
Although Israel does not make its own vaccines, Netanyahu has led one of the world’s most successful vaccination campaigns, providing millions of doses from drugmakers Pfizer and Moderna. He told a news conference that Israel had already vaccinated more than 5 million people with the Pfizer / BioNTech vaccine and could complete the task of inoculating its 6.2 million adults within weeks.
He also said that Israel has a surplus of hundreds of thousands of Moderna vaccines.
After determining that Israel had “more than enough” vaccines for its own population, he said he had personally decided to share the symbolic number of doses with some of Israel’s allies.
He said that this was done “in exchange for things we have already received, through many contacts in various areas, which I will not explain here,” Netanyahu said. “I think that absolutely buys goodwill.”
Israeli public television Kan said a total of about 100,000 Moderna vaccines were being delivered to about 15 allies.
These include Honduras, Guatemala, Hungary, Uganda and the Czech Republic – countries that have recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel or have expressed interest in opening diplomatic offices there after the US embassy moved from Trump to the city in 2018.
The list also includes Chad, which established diplomatic ties with Israel in 2019, Mauritania, which is believed to be at the top of rebuilding relations, and several other African countries that have close security ties with Israel, including Ethiopia and Kenya.
Asked how Netanyahu used their vaccines as a diplomatic tool, Moderna declined to comment.
The Palestinians claim East Jerusalem, conquered by Israel through the Middle East in 1967 and later annexed as the capital of a future state. Competing claims to the city are at the heart of decades of conflict, and much of the international community says Jerusalem’s fate must be negotiated.
Netanyahu noted that Israel has also promised to share some vaccines with the Palestinians. Israel has delivered only 2,000 doses of Moderna to the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority to inoculate West Bank medical workers.
Otherwise, the Palestinians are struggling to get their own vaccines. The Palestinian Authority received 10,000 doses of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine, while a rival to President Mahmoud Abbas this week delivered an additional 20,000 Sputnik vaccines to the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip after arranging delivery from the United Arab Emirates.
Together, these vaccines will cover only a small part of the millions of Palestinians. The Palestinian Authority has said it expects to receive more vaccines through the World Health Organization’s COVAX program and other deals, but it remains unclear when the drugs will arrive.
Wasel Abu Yusuf, a senior Palestinian official, accused Netanyahu of playing politics with a humanitarian issue.
“He uses the vaccines needed by some countries to gain political support for his policies, such as moving embassies to Jerusalem,” he said. “The amounts of vaccines he says he gives to Palestinians in the West Bank are very small.”
Inequality has drawn attention to global inequalities in vaccination between rich and poor nations and has drawn some international criticism.
Lawrence Gostin, a professor of global health law at Georgetown University, said it was understandable that Israel would like to take care of its own citizens first. But “at some point it becomes ethically grotesque,” he said.
He said that in addition to having a moral responsibility to the Palestinians, it would be wise to help them.
“The reason this is a smart thing is that it will benefit Israel tremendously from its reputation in the region and globally,” he said. “Not sharing the vaccine will not be forgotten because so many people die unnecessarily from a preventable disease.”
UN officials and human rights groups have expressed concern on inequality and said Israel was an occupying force responsible for providing vaccines to the Palestinians.
Israel says it has no such responsibility under the interim peace agreements of the 1990s. Israel is vaccinating its own Arab population, including the Palestinians, in Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem.
But Israeli public health experts have called on the government to share the vaccines, given widespread contact between Israelis and Palestinians. Tens of thousands of Palestinian workers work in Israel or in its West Bank settlements.
The Biden administration has refrained from criticizing Israel, but has expressed support for sharing vaccines with the Palestinians. “We believe it is important for Palestinians to gain greater access to the COVID vaccine in the coming weeks,” said State Department spokesman Ned Price. “It is important for Israel, for Israel’s health and security.
Netanyahu’s decision to share the vaccines with allies has been fierce at home. His main rival and managing partner, Defense Minister Benny Ganz, said Netanyahu had made the decision unilaterally without any discussion or oversight.
“The fact that Netanyahu trades vaccines to Israeli citizens who are paid with their tax money without any accountability shows that he believes he is running a kingdom, not a state,” Ganz said this week.
AP correspondents Lori Kelman of Tel Aviv and Matthew Lee of Washington contributed to the reports.