Israel’s vaccination politics could determine Netanyahu’s fate

While Israeli Arabs are being vaccinated, Palestinians face tough odds getting the shots.
Wednesday 06/01/2021
An Israeli healthcare worker administers a COVID-19 vaccine to an Israeli woman in Tel Aviv. (AFP)
An Israeli healthcare worker administers a COVID-19 vaccine to an Israeli woman in Tel Aviv. (AFP)

JERUSALEM - For media-obsessed Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, the coronavirus vaccine has arrived just in time.

Netanyahu’s opponents accuse his right-wing Likud Party of using the vaccination campaign for political gain before a March 23 election, and lacking a clear long-term strategy for dealing with the impact of COVID-19 — charges the government denies.

But, while Israel is in its third lockdown and faces a recession and high unemployment, it has avoided the shortages and bottlenecks faced by other countries.

With elections approaching in March, Netanyahu has placed his world-leading vaccination drive at the centre of his reelection campaign — launching an aggressive media blitz portraying him as almost singlehandedly leading the country out of the pandemic. He appears to be betting that a successful vaccination effort can persuade voters to forget about his corruption trial and the economic damage caused by the coronavirus crisis.

While this strategy has often served Netanyahu well, his obsession with controlling the message also threatens to backfire.

Netanyahu’s tactics have also contributed to a nascent uprising in his own party. Two prominent defectors accused him of creating a “personality cult” in their resignation speeches.

Since he became the first Israeli to be vaccinated two weeks ago in a festive event broadcast live on national television, Netanyahu’s office has pumped out a constant stream of statements, tweets and videos showing the prime minister extolling the virtues of the vaccine and claiming credit for making it available to the broader public.

By many counts, Israel has pulled off a significant achievement so far. In just over two weeks, the country has given nearly 1.4 million people the Pfizer/BioNtech vaccine, roughly 15% of its population. That is the highest level in the world on a per capita basis, according to “ Our World in Data,” an open source research site that compares official government statistics. Israel aims to vaccinate most of the population by the end of March — just around election time.

Israeli authorities have not said publicly what they paid for the vaccine developed by US company Pfizer and German partner BioNTech.

But one official said on condition of anonymity that Netanyahu’s government was “paying around $30 per vaccine dose, or around twice the price abroad.”

Israel also offered the pharmaceutical companies the promise of a quick rollout that could serve as a template for other places: swift results from a small country with a universal healthcare system, patient data stored centrally and the technological savvy to ensure a digitised distribution network.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said freeing Israel’s economy from a series of lockdowns justified any higher purchase cost or buying an excess of vaccines.

“What we basically said to Pfizer and Moderna and to the others was that if we will be one of the first countries to start vaccinating, very soon these companies will be able to see the results,” Edelstein told Reuters.

The vaccination campaign has faced some criticism and hurdles.

Netanyahu has made the campaign deeply personal. He welcomed the first shipment of vaccines at the airport. He got vaccinated on national TV, and he made sure to be at health clinics to greet the 500,000th and 1 millionth people to be vaccinated — with both events streamed live on YouTube.

Netanyahu boasts of his relationships with the chief executives of Pfizer and Moderna, implying his connections helped acquire millions of hard-to-get doses of vaccines. “I speak to them all the time,” he recently quipped.

— Media savvy —

Netanyahu rose to prominence in the 1990s in great part thanks to his mastery of the media. He is at ease on camera and capable of speaking in clear sound bites in both Hebrew and American-accented English. Despite his skill as a communicator, he has had a rocky relationship with the Israeli media.

Sounding much like US President Donald Trump, he accuses the media of having a liberal bias and leading a “witch hunt” against him. He has embraced social media and brags about circumventing the traditional media to spread his messages. When he invites reporters to his press conferences, he rarely takes questions.

A healthcare worker speaks to an Arab Israeli woman before giving her a COVID-19 vaccine at Clalit Health Services, in the northern Arab Israeli city of Umm al Fahm , on January 4, 2021. (AFP)
A healthcare worker speaks to an Arab Israeli woman before giving her a COVID-19 vaccine at Clalit Health Services, in the northern Arab Israeli city of Umm al Fahm , on January 4, 2021. (AFP)

Last week, Netanyahu welcomed the convicted US spy Jonathan Pollard to Israel, capping a 35-year saga. “What a moment,” Netanyahu declared on the airport tarmac in the middle of the night. Only no media were invited to witness the moment. Netanyahu’s office later released smartphone photos and video taken by an aide.

Gideon Saar, a Netanyahu stalwart, broke away from Likud last month to form his own party, accusing Netanyahu of turning Likud into a tool for personal survival as he goes on trial.

Zeev Elkin, a longtime confidant of Netanyahu, later joined Saar. “Mr. Prime Minister, you’ve destroyed the Likud and brought an atmosphere of a cult of personality, sycophancy, fear of expressing criticism, and a Byzantine court,” he said.

Saar’s new party, courting other right-wing voters disenchanted with Netanyahu’s rule, has emerged as a formidable force. Opinion polls forecast Saar’s party finishing second, behind the Likud, but at the head of a mix of anti-Netanyahu parties that together could end Netanyahu’s 12-year reign.

— Palestinian concerns —

Rights groups are outraged that Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip face a long wait for vaccines.

Israel’s 21% Arab minority has shown an initial wariness towards vaccination. They have mostly come aboard now.

Israel has added new vaccination centres in Arab towns, said Aiman Saif, the Israeli health ministry’s coronavirus coordinator for the Arab community, following concerns about the low rate of vaccination among Israeli Arabs.

He said some Israeli Arabs initially appeared reluctant to be vaccinated and may have been put off by misinformation on social media, prompting Israel to accelerate a public campaign to combat “fake news” about alleged side effects.

In the Palestinian territories, Palestinian health official Yasser Bozyeh estimated that Palestinians would begin receiving doses in February through the World Health Organization’s vaccine scheme for poor and middle-income countries.

Amnesty International on Wednesday called on Israel to provide coronavirus vaccine doses to Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, saying the Jewish state was obligated to do so under international law.

The Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank, which is home to some 2.8 million Palestinians, has not publicly asked for Israeli assistance in vaccine procurement.

The PA has said it has made contact with potential vaccine suppliers, but its health ministry said it would struggle to store the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in the requisite sub-zero conditions.

While he awaits his trial, Netanyahu accuses his rivals of being motivated by little more than sour grapes and shared animosity toward him. He says they are focused on petty politics while he is carrying out “a giant vaccination operation” that will make Israel the first country to exit the coronavirus crisis.

It remains unclear whether Israel will procure enough vaccines to keep up the torrid pace of inoculations. It also is unclear whether Netanyahu’s message will resonate with the legions of voters who have lost their jobs — especially with the country in its third lockdown as it faces a new outbreak.