Israel deploys vaccine diplomacy to strengthen ties with countries that back Jerusalem as capital

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David Rose
·3 min read
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits a theatre in Jerusalem to mark the re-opening of the culture sector amid a highly successful vaccination programme - OHAD ZWIGENBERG /AFP
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits a theatre in Jerusalem to mark the re-opening of the culture sector amid a highly successful vaccination programme - OHAD ZWIGENBERG /AFP

Israel is to donate nearly 100,000 surplus doses of Covid-19 vaccine to nearly 20 countries, apparently as a reward for diplomatic support in its ongoing bid to have Jerusalem recognised as its capital by the international community.

The Czech Republic, Guatemala, Honduras and Hungary — which have either opened diplomatic missions in Jerusalem or pledged to do so — are reportedly soon to receive up to 5,000 doses each from Israel's excess stock of the Moderna vaccine.

Israel’s government regards all of Jerusalem as its capital. However, most countries base their diplomats elsewhere because the claim is not recognised by the United Nations. Palestinians want East Jerusalem to be the capital of any future Palestinian state.

Local media reports also suggested Italy, Cyprus, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda would be among the countries to receive donations of between 1,000 and 5,000 free jabs. All have warm relations with the Middle Eastern country or have recently renewed diplomatic ties.

But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has come under fire for using Israel's vaccine stockpile to reward friendly countries while donating only a few thousand doses to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, which are classed as occupied territories under international law.

A statement from Mr Netanyahu’s office on Tuesday offered to send more vaccines for Palestinian health workers, but said other countries would also receive “symbolic” amounts once Israel had finished its own vaccination campaign.

"Our supply is beyond what is needed by the citizens of Israel," Mr Netanyahu told reporters. "We have more than enough to help where we can. It is mostly symbolic."

In less than two months, around half of Israelis have received at least one dose of the Pfizer-Biontech or Moderna jabs against Covid-19. The Health Ministry says all adults should be fully inoculated with two doses by the end of next month, with doses to spare.

A woman receives a vaccination at a Tel Aviv bar offering free drinks with a Covid shot - CORINNA KERN /REUTERS 
A woman receives a vaccination at a Tel Aviv bar offering free drinks with a Covid shot - CORINNA KERN /REUTERS

Last weekend it was claimed that Mr Netanyahu had also secretly agreed to spend $1.2 million on coronavirus vaccinations for Syria in order to release an Israeli woman who had crossed into the country and been arrested.

But the decision to donate vaccinations abroad has infuriated Palestinians and human rights groups who claim the West Bank and Gaza should be included in the country’s inoculation drive.

So far Israel has only provided 2,000 Moderna jabs for 5 million Palestinians, despite promising that health workers and up to 100,000 Palestinians who travel to Israel regularly could also be vaccinated.

The United Arab Emirates has meanwhile delivered 20,000 doses to Gaza, while Russia has promised 10,000 doses of its Sputnik V vaccine to the Palestinian Authority, which governs the West Bank.

Salem Barahmeh, executive director at the Palestine Institute for Public Diplomacy, a Ramallah-based advocacy group, said: “It says a lot about a regime that it is willing to send vaccines halfway across the world, potentially for a quid pro quo, and not offer the vaccine to the millions of Palestinians who live under the Israeli occupation.”

Mr Netanyahu is hoping the success of the vaccination campaign and the relaxing of his country’s most recent lockdown will boost his chances of re-election as Israelis go to the polls next month.

But he was criticised by his main rival Benny Gantz, the Defence Minister, who said the government had not agreed on yesterday’s announcement.

"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," Mr Gantz wrote on Twitter.