Israel’s new strong-arm diplomacy: swapping vaccines for prisoners

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Jerusalem: Forget about oil and arms. Coronavirus vaccines are emerging as the newest currency of choice in the Middle East.

Israel’s murky prisoner swap with Syria and the arrival of a batch of vaccines in the Gaza Strip have all underscored how those with access to the vaccines have political power in the turbulent region.

Israel has faced international criticism for largely excluding Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip from its ambitious vaccination campaign, the fastest rollout in the world.

Yet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly showed little hesitation in agreeing to pay Russia some $US 1.2 million to buy coronavirus vaccines for arch-enemy Syria as part of a deal last week to release an Israeli woman held captive in Damascus.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was evasive about Israel’s role procuring vaccines for Syria. Credit:Yediot Ahronot

Netanyahu boasted last week that his warm ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin helped clinch the deal. His office made no mention of any vaccines and reportedly pushed the country’s military censor to block mention of the vaccine purchases.

Asked about the reported deal, Netanyahu was evasive. He said “not one Israeli vaccine” was delivered to Syria – a country that harbours hostile Iranian forces. But he would not say whether Israel had paid Russia for the vaccines.

“It is legitimate for the Israeli government to decide to deviate from past norms and to pay with another form of currency,” Yoav Limor, an Israel military affairs correspondent, wrote in Israel Hayom. “However, the decision to hide that is baffling and worrisome. Obviously, someone was very uncomfortable with having that matter come to light.”

Netanyahu has pinned his re-election hopes on the success of his campaign to vaccinate Israel’s adult population. At the same time, he has offered rewards to those who vaccinate and punishments to those who don’t.

On Sunday, Israel lifted a number of restrictions, reopening stores, shopping malls, and many schools after a two-month lockdown. In the coming weeks, all schools and restaurants are expected to reopen, just in time for the March 23 election.

“The timing is good for him,” said Gideon Rahat, a political scientist at Israel’s Hebrew University.

An Israeli official said Sunday that Israel is considering sharing surplus vaccines with friendly nations. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was discussing internal government deliberations.

The disparities between Israel’s successful vaccination push with its own population and the Palestinians have drawn criticism from UN officials and rights groups and have thrown the spotlight on the inequities between rich and poor countries getting access to vaccines.

These groups contend that Israel is responsible for vaccinating the Palestinians, while Israel has argued that under interim peace agreements it is not responsible for vaccinating them. Israel’s vaccination campaign has included its own Arab population.

Ahmad Tibi, a prominent Arab lawmaker in the Israeli parliament, wrote on Twitter: “Must we wait for a Jewish person to cross the border with Gaza for them to deserve vaccines?”

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has struggled to secure vaccines for his people. So far, he has received 2,000 doses from Israel to treat medical workers in the West Bank, and 10,000 doses from Russia.

Covid testing on the Rafah border crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt, as Palestinian authorities negotiate access to vaccines. Credit:Bloomberg

One of Abbas’ main rivals on Sunday orchestrated the delivery of 20,000 doses of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine from the United Arab Emirates. The move by Mohammed Dahlan, a former Abbas aide forced into exile after a falling out with the Palestinian leader, appeared to be aimed in part at making Abbas appear weak ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled in May.

Dahlan, who is backing a list of supporters in the election, “boosted his position and political presence” with the delivery, said Mustafa Ibrahim, a Gaza-based writer. “It’s part of the campaigning and empowers the group that delivers the aid.”


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