Israel halts vaccine diplomacy programme over legal uncertainty

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces claims he had no authority to send surplus doses abroad

Authorities in Guatemala unload boxes containing 5,000 doses of Covid-19 vaccine donated by Israel. EPA
Authorities in Guatemala unload boxes containing 5,000 doses of Covid-19 vaccine donated by Israel. EPA

Israel halted its plan to distribute surplus coronavirus vaccine doses to other countries as authorities examine whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had the authority to order the move.

Mr Netanyahu said on Tuesday that Israel would send a "limited quantity" of doses to the Palestinians and several allies, including two that announced plans to boost their diplomatic presence in Israel.

But on Thursday, the Justice Ministry said the attorney general was examining, after requests from the public, whether doses were "transferred to foreign countries without authority".

The ministry said that National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat asked for the attorney general's legal opinion on the decision to send doses abroad.

Mr Ben-Shabbat informed the attorney general that "an order has already been issued to freeze any activity on the topic", the ministry said.

An official in Mr Netanyahu's office said that Mr Ben-Shabbat "sought a legal opinion from the attorney general on the matter" after being approached by the ministry, implying that the process had been frozen.

This was "despite Israeli citizens not losing a single vaccine", the official said.

"The amount set to be given to the foreign states was symbolic and creates a good image for Israel in the world."

Israel sent several thousand doses to the occupied West Bank to inoculate Palestinian Authority medical workers, a move approved by the Security Cabinet and overseen by the attorney general.

Earlier on Thursday, Defence Minister Benny Gantz said that while the decision to give doses to the Palestinian Authority followed "due process" and was in Israel's interests, "supplying vaccines to other countries was never broached in relevant forums".

He said the policy was pushed through without the required consultation and was therefore "against the law".

The issue must first be discussed by the Security Cabinet, he said.

Mr Gantz and Mr Netanyahu are bitter rivals who entered an uneasy coalition after elections last year. Their arrangement quickly fell apart and in March the country will hold its fourth national election in two years.

Honduras, which said last year that it would move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, was on the list of recipients, sources told Agence France-Presse.

The Czech Republic, which plans to open a diplomatic office in Jerusalem next month, said on Tuesday that it received 5,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine from Israel.

Hungary and Guatemala are also reportedly expected to receive doses.

Israel has administered two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech shot to more than 3.2 million people, more than a third of its population.

While many countries are struggling to obtain doses of Covid-19 vaccines, Israel has avoided shortages since beginning its inoculation programme in December.

On Wednesday, Mr Netanyahu said the doses to be sent abroad "wouldn't come at the expense of even one vaccine of an Israeli citizen" and bore diplomatic weight.

Most countries have embassies in Tel Aviv, pending a resolution of the conflict with the Palestinians, who claim East Jerusalem as the capital of a future state.

Israel claims Jerusalem as its "undivided capital".

Updated: February 26, 2021 03:14 PM

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