The political implications of the Israel-Pfizer vaccine deal

Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine logo is displayed on a screen with a syringe in the front (Ali Balıkçı - Anadolu Agency)

Ramona Wadi

Middle East Monitor  /  March 16, 2021

Israel’s successful vaccination campaign and its subsequent positive spell in the international spotlight is a result of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s politicisation of medical matters in the run-up to this month’s General Election. The January deal between Israel and Pfizer allowed the stockpiling of vaccines and a swift inoculation of the population, in return for sharing data with the pharmaceutical company regarding efficacy and the societal and economic impact.

Not all details of the Israel-Pfizer deal were made public. Israeli media have claimed that the government paid up to 50 per cent more for vaccine supplies. However, no details regarding data sharing were made public, leading to concerns about data protection.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu was able to exploit other countries’ need for vaccines in return for diplomatic support at an international level, albeit without Knesset consent. The Czech Republic, Honduras and Guatemala benefited from such an arrangement, with all three confirming the arrival of vaccine shipments from the occupation state. The move was suspended by Israel’s Justice Ministry, before being revived this month due to the vaccine expiring in May. Countries seeking ties with Israel would get 5,000 doses of Moderna vaccine, purchased prior to Israel’s deal with Pfizer.

The outreach towards other countries exposed Israel’s ostracisation of the Palestinian people and sparked criticism that it was neglecting its legal obligations as an occupying power. Israel’s inhumane treatment of Palestinians throughout the pandemic caught international attention sporadically, and excluding Palestinians from access to vaccine might have ramped up pressure, had the Palestinian Authority not emulated Israel and embarked upon its own vaccine diplomacy and elitism, adding to the deprivation already entrenched by Israeli colonial apartheid.

While many countries are lagging behind in their vaccination programmes, Israel is also leading in the concept of a vaccine passport, which would enable vaccinated persons unrestricted access to society at home and abroad. This is yet another measure that has sparked inequality debates worldwide, due to ethical considerations and privacy breaches, as well as the exposure of an unequal system where countries and communities can be deprived of their right to health upon the basis of access to vaccine and inoculation.

In the midst of such considerations, which will eventually become politicised to the detriment of people around the globe, Pfizer’s CEO Albert Bourla cancelled a trip to Israel for fear of being perceived as aiding Netanyahu’s election campaign. “My job is not to do politics,” he declared after Israel’s Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit described the planned visit as “prohibited and criminal election propaganda.”

This was too late for Pfizer to step away from politicising its vaccine, having entered a deal which enabled Israel to exploit countries for diplomatic support, while abnegating its obligations towards the Palestinian people. For Israel, influencing the election is a concern, but the greater picture is still lost to the electoral campaign, that of acknowledging Pfizer’s role in a scheme that spells inequality in terms of vaccine access.

According to the Times of Israel, Netanyahu phoned Bourla thirty times to secure the vaccine deal, efforts that were “praised” instead of being perceived as exclusionary and putting other countries at a disadvantage. “I was impressed, frankly, with the obsession of [Netanyahu],” explained Bourla. He clearly felt no shame in making Pfizer a willing accomplice in Israel’s apartheid practices and propaganda.

Ramona Wadi is an independent researcher, freelance journalist, book reviewer and blogger; her writing covers a range of themes in relation to Palestine, Chile and Latin America.