There are different ways to secure hard-to-get coronavirus vaccines, but Israel's allies are now learning that it may be as simple as giving the "right" answer to the question: "Whose capital is Jerusalem?"
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday acknowledged sharing coronavirus vaccines with a number of friendly countries that have given favors to Tel Aviv in the past. Although he did not identify the nations, a list obtained by an Israeli TV station suggested that a number of them have supported Israel’s claim to the contested city of Jerusalem as its government seat after former U.S. President Donald Trump recognized it as Israel's capital.
The comments come at a time when Israel is facing international criticism for not doing more to share its vast stockpile of vaccines with the Palestinians. They also illustrated during a time of global shortages, the vaccine has become an asset that can be used for diplomatic gain.
“As the occupying power, Israel is responsible for the health of all the people under its control,” tweeted U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders. “It is outrageous that Netanyahu would use spare vaccines to reward his foreign allies while so many Palestinians in the occupied territories are still waiting.”
Although Israel does not make its own vaccines, Netanyahu has overseen one of the world’s most successful vaccination campaigns by securing millions of doses from drug makers Pfizer and Moderna. Speaking at a news conference, he said Israel has already vaccinated over 5 million people with the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine and could complete the task of inoculating its 6.2 million adults within weeks.
Netanyahu also said Israel has an excess supply of hundreds of thousands of Moderna vaccines. After determining that Israel has “more than enough” shots for its own population, he said he personally decided to share what he called a symbolic number of doses with some of Israel’s allies.
He said it was done “in return for things we have already received, through many contacts in various areas that I will not detail here,” Netanyahu said. “I think it absolutely buys goodwill.”
Israeli public broadcaster Kan said a total of roughly 100,000 Moderna vaccines are being shipped to some 15 allies.
They include Honduras, Guatemala, Hungary, Uganda and the Czech Republic – countries that have recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital or expressed interest in opening diplomatic offices there following the Trump administration’s move of the U.S. Embassy to the city in 2018.
Chad, which established diplomatic ties with Israel in 2019; Mauritania, which is believed to be on the cusp of restoring relations, and several other African countries that have close security ties with Israel, including Ethiopia and Kenya, also appeared on the list.
Asked about Netanyahu using their vaccines as a diplomatic tool, Moderna declined to comment.
The Palestinians want East Jerusalem, occupied by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War and later annexed, as the capital of a future state. The competing claims to the city lie at the heart of the decades-long conflict, and most of the international community says the fate of Jerusalem must be resolved through negotiations.
Netanyahu noted that Israel also pledged to share some vaccines with the Palestinians. Tel Aviv has delivered just 2,000 Moderna doses to the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority (PA) to innoculate West Bank medical workers.
Outside of those, the Palestinians have struggled to procure their own vaccines. The PA received 10,000 doses of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine, while a rival of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas this week delivered an additional 20,000 Sputnik vaccines to the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip after arranging delivery from the United Arab Emirates.
Together, these vaccines will cover just a tiny fraction of the millions of Palestinians. The PA 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 medicines will arrive.
Wasel Abu Yusuf, a senior Palestinian official, accused Netanyahu of playing politics with a humanitarian issue.
“He is using the vaccines needed by some countries to get political support for his policies, like moving embassies to Jerusalem,” he said. "The amounts of vaccines he is talking about giving to Palestinians in the West Bank is very small.”
The inequity has drawn attention to the global disparity in obtaining vaccines between rich and poor nations and prompted some international criticism.
Lawrence Gostin, professor of global health law at Georgetown University, said it’s understandable that Israel would want to take care of its own citizens first but “at some point, it becomes ethically grotesque.”
He said that beyond having a moral responsibility to the Palestinians, it would be smart to help them.
“The reason it’s a smart thing is that it would gain Israel enormous benefits in its reputation in the region and globally,” he said. “Failing to share the vaccine won’t be forgotten because so many people needlessly die from preventable disease.”
U.N. officials and human rights groups have voiced concerns about the inequity and said that Israel is an occupying power responsible for providing vaccines to the Palestinians.
Israel says that under interim peace agreements from the 1990s it has no such responsibility. Tel Aviv has vaccinated its own Arab population, including Palestinians, in Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem.
Israeli public health experts, however, have called on the government to share the vaccines, given the widespread contact between Israelis and Palestinians. Tens of thousands of Palestinian laborers work inside Israel or its West Bank settlements.
The Biden administration has refrained from criticizing Israel but expressed support for sharing vaccines with the Palestinians. “We believe it’s important for Palestinians to achieve increased access to (the COVID-19) vaccine in the weeks ahead,” State Department Spokesperson Ned Price said. “It’s important for Israel, Israel’s health and security as well."
Netanyahu’s decision to share the vaccines with allies has also come under fire at home. His main rival and governing partner, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, said the prime minister unilaterally made the decision without any deliberations or oversight.
“The fact that Netanyahu trades in vaccines of Israeli citizens that were paid for from their tax money without any accountability shows that he thinks he is running a kingdom and not a state,” Gantz said this week.