Netanyahu 'recruited' Pfizer's CEO to his election campaign - will it work?

Netanyahu is hoping that his relationship with the vaccine maker will give him a shot at another election victory.

PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein are seen during a visit to a Leumit Health Care Services COVID-19 vaccination center in Tel Aviv, with the five millionth Israeli who received a vaccination, last week.  (photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein are seen during a visit to a Leumit Health Care Services COVID-19 vaccination center in Tel Aviv, with the five millionth Israeli who received a vaccination, last week.
(photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)
Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla has been recruited to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s election campaign, whether he knows it or not.
Netanyahu is hoping that his relationship with the vaccine maker will give him a shot at another election victory.
“Do you know how many prime ministers and presidents call Pfizer and Moderna?” Netanyahu said last week in an interview with The Jerusalem Post. Bourla said Netanyahu had called him 30 times, and he reportedly called former Moderna chief scientist Tal Zaks almost as many. “They don’t take their calls. They took my calls.”
Netanyahu said that he convinced Pfizer that Israel would be a model country in which to roll out the vaccine.
“Who else will do that? Definitely not [Yair] Lapid, [Naftali] Bennett and Gideon [Sa’ar],” he said, referring to his main rivals.
In the previous election, Netanyahu hung a large billboard of himself shaking hands with former US president Donald Trump on the side of the busy Ayalon Highway in Tel Aviv with the headline, “Netanyahu – in a league of his own.”
But in this election, despite his references to “my friend, Joe,” the prime minister cannot tout his close ties with the US president, who himself was elected only a few months ago.
Moreover, Netanyahu understands that unlike in the past, this election will not be won on security, foreign policy and diplomacy – all things at which he excels. Rather, #IsraElex4 is about the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on the country’s health and economy.
“NETANYAHU DOES not have Biden, so he has Bourla,” said Dr. Julia Elad-Strenger, of Bar-Ilan University’s department of political studies. She said Netanyahu has repeatedly touted his personal rapport with Bourla as a major reason that Israel was able to secure large quantities of coronavirus vaccines so quickly.
“I was talking with several heads of state. I spoke with your prime minister – he convinced me that Israel is the place with the right conditions,” Bourla said in an interview last week with Channel 12. “I was impressed, frankly, with the obsession of your prime minister.”
Bourla explained that the prime minister called him at three o’clock in the morning Israel time and essentially begged for the vaccines. But he also told Channel 12 that it is not true that only Netanyahu could have scored such a deal. Bourla said the company signs supply contracts with states, not individual leaders.
“The vaccines will be sold to every country, irrespective of who is the leader,” he said.
Netanyahu, however, wants the public to think otherwise.
Netanyahu is so “obsessed with vaccines,” as he admitted in an interview with Channel 13, that rather than touting the historic normalization agreements he signed over the past year, he has used the last two weeks to highlight how his diplomatic strengths could translate to vaccine independence for the State of Israel.
Last week, Netanyahu met with his Czech and Hungarian counterparts, Andrej Babis and Viktor Orban, respectively, to discuss potential collaboration on the production in Israel of coronavirus vaccines.
The prime minister said last month that he was in dialogue with Pfizer and Moderna about opening plants in the country. Bourla was supposed to visit on March 8 to discuss these efforts, but his trip was canceled, some say because of claims by the opposition that his visit could be seen as election interference.
Netanyahu said that the conversations with Babis and Orban focused on “how we can involve both the Czech Republic and Hungary in the international plant that we want to build here in Israel for the production of the vaccines of the future. We discussed this in considerable detail.”
He boasted about his personal relationships with the two leaders.
“When I say ‘close friends,’ I mean it,” the prime minister said. “Both are close personal friends, but also leaders who have made their countries good friends of Israel, even more than they have been in the past.”
Earlier in the month, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen visited Israel to discuss joining together to explore vaccine production and regulation options.
Israel does not have its own vaccine regulatory procedure and therefore relies on approvals of vaccines by the US Food and Drug Administration and the European Medicines Agency.
WHILE ISRAEL remained shut down and it was unclear whether the vaccines were working in their first weeks of administration, the public had little patience for the prime minister’s tactics. But in recent weeks, as numbers have been on a steady decline and the reproduction rate – the number of people a coronavirus carrier is likely to infect – is the lowest it has been since October, Israelis are beginning to feel more optimistic.
“The timing of the election for Netanyahu is pretty good because of the vaccinations and the opening of the economy,” said Bar-Ilan University Prof. Eytan Gilboa.
Psychological studies show that people tend to remember what happened last, explained Prof. Hagai Levine, former chairman of the Association of Public Health Physicians. He said that Netanyahu is building on the short memory of the public – that they will cast their ballots based on the situation now and not his overall handling of the coronavirus crisis.
“When we look at the overall picture, we see that because of unstable and unprofessional decision-making, the country implemented an extreme lockdown policy that was not good enough to prevent more than 6,000 deaths on the one hand, and which caused tremendous damage to people’s health and the economy on the other hand,” Levine said. “Netanyahu is making a huge effort to claim that the COVID-19 response in Israel was a success, regardless of the facts.”
Specifically, Netanyahu is focusing on two aspects of the country’s handling of the pandemic. The first
, as mentioned, is Israel’s stunning vaccination rollout. The second is Israel’s “exit” from the coronavirus and the opening of the economy.
“I imagine that if the elections would not have been held next week, the opening of the economy would have been slower,” Gilboa said.
In an effort to combat the prime minister, the opposition parties are also wrapping their campaigns around corona.
The center and center-left parties are emphasizing Netanyahu’s coronavirus failures. They talk about selective enforcement, such as when Netanyahu did not want to alienate the religious parties, so he allowed haredi (ultra-Orthodox) schools to open while the rest of the country’s children sat at home. They talk about the 750,000 Israelis who remain unemployed as a result of the crisis, and, of course, the airport disaster, whereby for what his critics said were political and diplomatic reasons, Netanyahu not only allowed but encouraged mass travel to Dubai, which let more infectious coronavirus variants into Israel.
For the first time, in this election, there are prime ministerial alternatives on the Right – two parties closely aligned with the Likud that say they want to replace Netanyahu, New Hope and Yamina. Their platforms also center on COVID.
Sa’ar selected MK Yifat Shasha-Biton, the outspoken head of the Knesset Coronavirus Committee, as his No. 2.
Bennett wrote a book about how Netanyahu mismanaged the crisis, and has campaigned on a platform focused on how he will help Israel recover from the pandemic.
“The right[-wing] parties have said that for the next two years, they will not deal with any ideological issues – not settlements, not Palestinians,” Gilboa explained. “They said, ‘Our priority is the virus.’”
It is unclear, however, whether the “rational” campaigns being run by the opposition will succeed in trumping Netanyahu’s emotionally charged efforts, Elad-Strenger explained.
“Netanyahu’s strongest suit is to make his politics personal,” she said. “It is, ‘I am the father of the nation, and I take care of you.’”
Elad-Strenger said Netanyahu does not give credit to his government or the Health Ministry for their parts of the national effort. She said, “He speaks in ‘we,’ but it is clear he does the things. He makes clear that he personally works for Israel.
“At the same time, Netanyahu keeps a big distance from his voters,” she said, contrasting his actions to those of Bennett, who likes to talk about himself as “your brother.”
Netanyahu portrays himself as some kind of mythological character who can be forgiven for his transgressions because he is the “great protector of the nation,” she said.
“With COVID in general, we know that when people feel under threat, they become more conservative – this is a very consistent finding in research,” Elad-Strenger explained. “Conservative ideologies provide solace in times of threat. This is good for Bibi.”
At the same time, she said, Netanyahu is careful to differentiate between his personal successes and the country’s failures, which he spins as having little to do with him or his actions.
SINCE THE arrival of the first vaccines in Israel, Netanyahu has worked tirelessly to connect himself to these millions of tiny vials. He met vaccine shipments at the airport alongside the health minister. He was the first Israeli to get inoculated, and he did it on live TV. He has repeatedly visited vaccination centers, snapping smiling photos of himself amid syringes and naked shoulders.
The prime minister even recently came under fire for connecting himself so closely to the vaccination campaign that he had been using the campaign slogan “returning to life,” a saying coined by the Health Ministry to reference how Israel’s vaccination success could mean the country’s recovery from the pandemic.
The Central Elections Committee banned Netanyahu’s party from using the slogan.
The prime minister singlehandedly decided to share Israel’s pandemic data with Pfizer in exchange for the vaccines, turning Israel into “the world’s lab,” as Bourla put it. He also was going to give out thousands of coronavirus vaccines to countries friendly to Israel, before the move was frozen due to questions of its legality.
“This cutting in line, using your personal connections” is something Netanyahu is known to do, Levine said. “But I don’t think it will hurt him in the election. Rather, it may even be helpful. This is a bully’s activity, but he is our bully, so maybe that’s good.”
Although the election is Tuesday, it is still unclear whether Netanyahu’s tactics are working effectively.
A recent survey by the Israel Democracy Institute showed that around one-third of people say they still do not know for whom they intend to vote. At this time last election, only 8% were still undecided.
One of the reasons for this, according to Gilboa, is lack of trust in the country’s politicians – another ripple effect of the coronavirus crisis.
At the same time, the pandemic could have practical implications on voter turnout.
For example, some people will be afraid to cast their ballots in crowded booths lest they catch the virus, Levine noted. If rumors circulate that a sick person is identified at any of the voting stations, it could turn people away.
He also said that infected people and those in isolation will undergo complicated voting procedures that might deter them from making the effort.
IN SEVERAL Facebook groups the Post asked whether the successful vaccination campaign and the fast-tracked opening of the economy would encourage people to vote for the man who claims he got it done, or even sway them to reconsider for whom they were voting, in general.
Consistently, dozens of respondents said it would have no impact. But Jerusalemite Ariella Bernstein said she believes that many people just do not want to admit it.
“I believe a lot of people are looking now, a few days before the election, and things are not so bad, the kids are back in school, we can see our grandparents,” and will base their votes on that, she said. “People have short memories. They will vote on what they can do this weekend and not what they could do three weekends ago.”
But Bernstein is not one of them. She said she recently purchased a ticket for her daughter to fly to the US to spend Passover with her 80-year-old parents, both of whom suffered from COVID-19. Her father has a serious case of long COVID.
“How would I have felt today if my daughter could not go to be with my parents?” she asked. “It would have been difficult for me, but it would not have impacted my vote. You have to vote based on what is right for this country and not based on these or those restrictions.”
Just in case statements like Bernstein’s are incorrect, Netanyahu – with the help of his Likud colleague, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein – has been making plenty of sweeping moves to rapidly lift more and more restrictions before voters head to the polls.
It began last week, when the Education Ministry – run by Likud Party minister Yoav Gallant – announced that all special education students would return to full-time schooling.
Last Friday – in an announcement made without the collaboration of Blue and White Tourism Minister Orit Farkash-Hacohen – the Health Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office said that some 700 Jordanian foreign workers would be allowed to enter Israel to help operate the hotel industry in Eilat.
On Saturday night, the Health Ministry increased the number of visitors each resident of a health or welfare institution could have, said that youth group members will now be able to gather in open spaces in neighborhoods of all colors and, together with Likud Transportation Minister Miri Regev, announced that it is now possible to operate flights to Israel from any destination.
In the case of the airport, the High Court ruled on Wednesday that the restriction of only 3,000 returnees per day was unconstitutional anyway and has to end on Saturday, three days before the election.
On Sunday, Edelstein announced that bars and clubs would open next week, two days before the election.
The announcements, which were made one at a time and go beyond the mapped out third stage of the exit strategy that was presented by the Health Ministry, were eerily reminiscent of moves made in May when, only days after many of the country’s new ministers formally took office, they competed with each other in reminding the public why having a government is so important. Then, one by one, minister after minister announced that they were lifting coronavirus restrictions controlled by their new office.
Regev lifted coronavirus restrictions on the number of passengers on buses during peak hours, allowing unlimited numbers of parents and children to board inner-city buses from 7-8:30 a.m. and 1-3 p.m. Culture and Sport Minister Chili Tropper confirmed that museums and swimming pools could open. Gallant expanded school hours, allowing parents to drop their children off as early as 7:30 a.m.
Interior Minister Arye Deri scored the opening of synagogues. And Edelstein, who was involved in all of the above decisions then and now, informed the public that it did not have to wear masks in open spaces or at school during the heat wave.
Now that Israel is going to vote for a replacement for that government, it remains to be seen whether the recent preelection gestures will impact enough votes to make a difference.
“My guess is that Netanyahu will be able to manipulate the public with the vaccines,” said Levine, “and like a magician, cover up his mismanagement of COVID-19.”