Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu froze his plan to send doses of the COVID-19 vaccine to countries friendly to Israel on Thursday, following questions of its legality, as he vigorously defended his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
“I said at the beginning of the pandemic that there would be thousands of people dead – people mocked me,” Netanyahu said in an interview with Channel 13. “To my dismay, this is what happened.”
He defended the country’s high death rate – there were 5,685 people who succumbed to COVID-19 as of press time on Thursday – saying that the pandemic has been globally fatal.
“Other nations sustained greater damage,” he said. “Thirty world leaders have called and every one of them has said, ‘We tip our hats to you.’”
The interview took place within hours of a decision by Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit to ask National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat for more details about the initiative to supply foreign countries with vaccines, out of a concern that there may be a petition against it to the High Court of Justice.
Ben-Shabbat decided to delay shipment of the vaccines until he receives Mandelblit’s legal opinion on the matter.
An official in the Prime Minister’s Office said that “even though not one vaccine was taken from the citizens of Israel and despite the fact that the amount [planned to be sent] to the countries is symbolic and builds a good name for Israel in the world, a pre-petition arose that had the attorney-general turn to the national security adviser, and as such, the national security adviser asked the attorney-general for an opinion on the matter.”
In addition, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi demanded that it be brought to a vote in the Security Cabinet.
Gantz opposed the vaccine aid plan on the grounds that Netanyahu made the decision alone, without a cabinet vote or consultation, and praised the fact that it had been put on hold.
“Netanyahu’s move was made undemocratically, while circumventing the rules,” Gantz tweeted. “If there is a reason to transfer vaccines to different countries at the expense of Israeli citizens, it will be decided only in the appropriate forums. Making decisions in the dark raises suspicion of harm to Israel’s foreign relations and national security.”
Earlier this week, the Prime Minister’s Office announced that several countries, as well as the Palestinian Authority, would receive a symbolic number of doses of the COVID-19 vaccine from Israel.
About 20 countries were on the list to get 1,000-5,000 doses each. Those include Mauritania, with which Israel does not have diplomatic relations, Chad, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Guinea, Honduras, Kenya, the Maldives, San Marino, and Uganda, as well as three EU countries, Cyprus, the Czech Republic and Hungary.
“We’re sending vaccines to countries we have friendly relations with,” a senior official said, when asked if the vaccine aid was a sign Israel and Mauritania are on a path to normalization.
Guatemala has an embassy in Jerusalem, the Czech Republic is expected to open a diplomatic office in the capital in the coming days, and Equatorial Guinea has promised to open an embassy in Jerusalem.
“It is important to vaccinate all citizens of Israel, and that is the first priority,” Coronavirus commissioner Prof. Nachman Ash told Ynet Wednesday. “I know the prime minister is making sure to bring more vaccines so there will be enough for everyone ... My advice was not sought [about sending vaccines abroad] and this is not in my area of responsibility.”
While the country debates sending vaccinations abroad, health officials in Israel are discussing whether Israel will see another spike in infection if citizens spend Purim night at parties and other festivities
Late Thursday night, thousands of people could be seen across social networks gathering illegally as Megillah readings concluded – in the ultra-Orthodox communities, but also in Tel Aviv.
Police tried to break up these events, but in some cases, they reportedly restarted as soon as police turned their backs.
“Those who celebrate at these ‘infection parties’ need to know, a spike in illness will be your fault,” Health Minister Yuli Edelstein lashed out Thursday morning, after a pre-Purim party in Tel Aviv brought thousands of maskless people together. “Businesses closing will be because of you, loss of human life will be on your conscience.”
He said that “young people also can become seriously ill, as death strikes all ages. Reform. It is not too late.”
The challenge is, as Ash put it in an interview Thursday on KAN Radio, that people feel the virus is behind them as Israel mass vaccinates.
Some 4.6 million people have received at least one dose of the Pfizer vaccine and more than 3.2 million of these have received their second shot, too.
Ash said some people feel they can “go out and party like things are normal. But it is not like that. It is just not like that.”
In fact, the Health Ministry reported Thursday morning that the reproduction rate – the R or number of people a sick person infects – is still on the rise.
On Thursday, it hit 0.93, up from 0.90 the day before and a low 0.79 on Sunday.
If the rate goes over one, then Israel would be forced to stop opening up, according to the recommendations of the Health Ministry.
While 4,343 people were diagnosed with coronavirus on Wednesday, the ministry reported Thursday that 5.9% of people tested were positive.
Some 751 of the country’s active cases were in serious condition, including 256 who were intubated. From the Health Ministry’s morning report until its evening report, 12 people died.
“We need to learn from past experience,” said Dr. Erez Barenboim, the director-general of Samson Assuta Ashdod University Hospital. “The opening of the economy should proceed solely in accordance with the number of patients and reproduction rate, which in recent days send an unequivocal message that it is time to halt all steps forward regarding the opening of the economy.”
He said optimism that the patient loads in the country’s coronavirus wards would be reduced was too premature.
“The wards are still full, and the rate of decline in the number of inpatients has slowed,” he stressed. “We are still in the midst of a dangerous epidemic that requires us to take personal and social responsibility.”
On Thursday morning, Hadassah-University Medical Center on Mt. Scopus reported that a 26-year-old man from Jerusalem with no known underlying health problems who died suddenly on Thursday morning was found to have been infected with COVID-19.
The man, a resident of the Ras al-Amud neighborhood, collapsed at his home and was evacuated via Magen David Adom to the emergency room at Hadassah, the hospital said.
MDA and medical personnel at the hospital made every attempt to resuscitate him, a statement by Hadassah said.
“At the hospital it was learned that he and his whole family were in isolation,” the statement said. “An immediate coronavirus test was performed and he was found positive.”
The family told the hospital he had no underlying medical conditions. He was also not vaccinated.
The cause of death is being further investigated.
Late Thursday, a 23-year-old COVID-19 patient from Nazareth died at EMMS Nazareth Hospital. According to staff, the patient did not suffer from pre-existing conditions.
"This is a painful reminder that the coronavirus hurts young and healthy people as well," said the hospital's deputy director-general Prof. Fahed Hakim.
Health Ministry data showed a spike in younger patients Thursday morning. Some 28 children under the age of 18 were in hospital, including several in serious condition. Moreover, 48 pregnant women were being treated in the hospital, among them six in critical condition.
The rise in infections is calling into question whether the government will be able to approve a set of reliefs scheduled to take place on March 7, and also statements made by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday night that the country will open in full by April.
“The intention is to completely open by April,” Netanyahu said Wednesday night. “This is of course dependent on the level of infection. But if we all do what we need to do, we will get there.”
On Thursday morning, a prominent Health Ministry official said that Netanyahu’s statements could not be guaranteed.
“I cannot commit that we will fully reopen in another month,” Head of Public Health Services Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis told Army Radio, adding that it depends on factors such as the morbidity rate.
When the government rolled out its Purim restrictions it did not include any restrictions on Jerusalem on Sunday, when residents celebrate Shushan Purim.
Netanyahu told Channel 13 that the curfew was still slated to end on Sunday and “I do not know if it will be extended. We will find an outline for Jerusalem.”
The government is expected to vote on how to handle the situation. On the table is a complete cessation of intercity transportation into Jerusalem on Sunday.
Rosella Tercatin contributed to this report.