Did the COVID vaccines give Netanyahu a victory shot?

Pfizer’s vaccines saved Israel – and may have inadvertently rescued the prime minister as well.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomes the first shipment of Pfizer's coronavirus vaccine to Ben-Gurion Airport, Israel, December 9, 2020 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomes the first shipment of Pfizer's coronavirus vaccine to Ben-Gurion Airport, Israel, December 9, 2020
Coronavirus vaccines were expected to be Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s green passport to victory Tuesday, as exit polls revealed that he would likely be able to build a coalition with a 61-MK majority.
Only a few short months ago, it seemed that COVID-19 would kill his chances of winning this election, just like it took the lives of more than 6,000 Israelis and stifled the country’s economy, leaving more than 700,000 people out of work.
But as voters cast their ballots on Tuesday, many with the shoulders they gave to their health funds and the national effort to “return to life,” they remembered the man who made it possible. And, it seemed, they voted in gratitude.
As of Tuesday, nearly 5.2 million Israelis had received at least one dose of the Pfizer vaccine, enabling them to freely head to the polls, less afraid of becoming infected.
Israelis have short memories, and Netanyahu was counting on the public forgetting about his gross mismanagement of the crisis after a few short weeks of attending sporting events and eating restaurant-made meals.
It worked.
Netanyahu is not a new politician; he is one of Israel’s most seasoned political professionals, and he knows how to win. Each of the last four elections he has managed to present his own “October surprise” – US political jargon for an event or action that could influence the outcome in the final hours of an election.
The prime minister’s rivals accused him of timing the country’s fast-paced and massive vaccination campaign with the election.
BUT ONE has to remember that there was actually a battle over the election date when it was called three months ago, and it was Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz who set the date. Gantz wanted a spring election, and Netanyahu wanted to wait for June, fearing going to an election during a pandemic.
Little did Gantz know that rather than casting ballots at outdoor voting booths with support staff wearing hazmat suits, the majority of Israelis would be able to vote at their traditional stations with little difference than in previous elections, except for maybe their wearing masks.
We entered the third election just as the vaccines were arriving.
On Friday, January 8, Israel began lockdown 3.5 – its strictest lockdown. The night before, Netanyahu informed the country that there would be enough vaccines to inoculate all Israelis over the age of 16 by the end of March.
“The agreement that I have made with Pfizer will enable us to vaccinate all citizens of Israel over the age of 16 by the end of March and perhaps even earlier,” Netanyahu said at the public address that was broadcast on all major TV outlets.
“We will be the first country to emerge from the coronavirus,” he said. “We will vaccinate all relevant populations, and anyone who wants to can be vaccinated.”
The prime minister explained the historic deal he had struck with Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla in the course of 17 conversations. Israel would “share with Pfizer and humanity as a whole the statistics that will help develop strategies to defeat the virus,” in exchange for an increased number of vaccines arriving in Israel at record speed, he said.
“This is a breakthrough that will take us out of the coronavirus crisis and return us to life,” Netanyahu said. “This is how we will open the economy, go back to work, to the synagogue... to the lives that we love and miss.”
He named the vaccination campaign “Returning to life” that night – the same slogan he presented in his first election commercials, until the Central Elections Committee banned his party from using it.
WHEN THE first shipment of 700,000 vaccines that were part of the new program arrived at Ben-Gurion Airport on Sunday, January 10, Netanyahu was there to greet them.
The irony of the timing could not be ignored then, and it certainly should not be ignored now, as Netanyahu flaunts his expected victory.
While it is unlikely that it was Bourla’s intention to influence the Israeli election, and the company was instead probably making a strategic business decision, Pfizer’s vaccines saved Israel – and may have inadvertently rescued the prime minister as well.
The prime minister used the vaccine to remind the public of his diplomatic strength – more so than even the Abraham Accords.
“Every hour or two, I get a call from the leaders of countries around the world,” Netanyahu said during one speech, “and they just ask for help.” “Israel has become the world champion in vaccines, but we also have good friends, and I told them we will help as much as we can,” he said.
At the start of the vaccination campaign, the prime minister and his party members were worried: Infection did not appear to be declining quick enough.
Throughout February, Netanyahu and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein regularly described the country’s predicament as a car race.
“Right now, we are moving in parallel on two different lanes,” Edelstein said during a visit to one of the health funds.
“If you can imagine two racing cars, one is the car driven by the vaccine and the other one by the disease,” he said. “We want to make sure that the vaccine car is the first to make it to the finish line, and unfortunately, we have a very tough race ahead because of the new mutations, variants... We definitely have a huge increase in the number of those infected by the disease in the last several days.”
In Netanyahu’s mind, there was likely a third lane, and in that lane was his own car, racing for reelection. The vaccines needed to do their work by the time March 23 arrived.
The polls indicated that his plan was working.
ON JANUARY 8, as the country entered lockdown with more than 8,000 new cases per day, Netanyahu was polling at around 27 mandates, according to N12 polls. His key rivals at the time, Gideon Sa’ar and Naftali Bennett, showed 18 and 14, respectively.
A month later, when more than 3.5 million people were vaccinated and there were just under 8,000 new cases, Netanyahu had increased to 29, Sa’ar had dropped to 13, and Bennett had fallen to 10.
A few weeks ago, on March 7, as the country resurfaced from a year of sickness, Netanyahu was showing 31 mandates, with Sa’ar and Bennett at nine each.
N12 on election night showed Netanyahu with 31, Sa’ar with six and Bennett with eight seats.
The exit polls on all three major Israeli channels at first showed the prime minister with a bloc of 61, so long as Bennett agrees to join Netanyahu’s government.  Later, his bloc decreased to 60, as per N12. But some analysts suggested there could be one or two defectors who would join the prime minister's camp.
“We are a country of vaccines,” Netanyahu recently said.
He likes to brag that Israel under his leadership can do what no other country can. Now, it seems that he will have yet another chance to prove this mantra true.