Israel freezes program to send vaccines abroad, defense minister says


JERUSALEM — Israel has frozen its program to send COVID-19 vaccines abroad to buy international goodwill, Defense Minister Benny Gantz said on Thursday, after the initiative came under legal scrutiny.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has come under fire for donating COVID-19 vaccines to foreign allies, while Palestinians complained that, as an occupying power, Israel should be supplying more to them.

Israeli public broadcaster Kan, which earlier this week reported that Israel would send small shipments to 19 countries, said Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit was seeking clarification about the program.

An official in Netanyahu's office said that after legal questions were raised, Netanyahu's national security adviser had asked Mandelblit to give his opinion.

"I welcome the decision to freeze the transfer of vaccines to other countries," Gantz said on Twitter. Gantz is serving in Netanyahu's government while preparing to face off against him in an election next month.

Netanyahu earlier this week defended what has been referred to as "vaccine diplomacy," saying Israel had "unused" Moderna vaccines left over.

"I think it buys goodwill," he told reporters on Wednesday. "I think it is an intelligent return for many dividends that we have already received, in many ongoing contacts in many different fields that I will not elaborate about here."

Israel has had one of the world's fastest rollouts of COVID-19 vaccines, with nearly half the population already having received one dose.

But centrist former general Gantz said a decision to give away vaccines must be made in the "proper forums" and it was not up to Netanyahu to take such action on his own.

Vaccine diplomacy

Earlier on Thursday, Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki called Netanyahu's overseas vaccine shipments "political blackmail and an immoral act," accusing Israel of "exploitation of the humanitarian needs of these countries."


Israel has so far given 2,000 doses to the Palestinian Authority, arguing that they are responsible for their own healthcare system. The West Bank and Gaza are home to 5.2 million Palestinians.

Palestinians have accused Israel of ignoring its duties as an occupying power by not including the Palestinians in its inoculation program.

Israeli officials have said that under the Oslo peace accords, the PA health ministry is responsible for vaccinating people in Gaza and parts of the West Bank where it has limited self-rule.

Two close allies of Israel have already confirmed they received shipments, before the program was suspended.

Honduras received 5,000 vaccine doses from Israel on Thursday. A video clip of their arrival was tweeted by President Juan Orlando Hernandez with the message "Take heart, Honduras!"

The country has signaled its intention to open an embassy in Jerusalem, bolstering Israel's claims to the city that it regards as its capital but infuriating the Palestinians, who claim the eastern half of the city as the capital of a future state.

On Tuesday, Czech Foreign Minister Tomas Petricek said his country had received several thousand doses.

The Czech Republic is one of Israel's strongest supporters in the European Union.

Before it was suspended Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz defended the Israeli action, saying on Thursday that Netanyahu was "using the fact that we are the first (country) with a surplus" for political and diplomatic ends.

"It's un-humanitarian not to give vaccines to someone in need," Steinitz said. The doses donated to each country number in the few thousands, he said.

US Senator Bernie Sanders added his voice to the critics, tweeting: "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."  Reuters