The Palestinian Authority canceled a deal to swap coronavirus vaccine doses with Israel on Friday, citing concerns about the quality of the shots.
Earlier in the day, Israel announced that it would transfer up to 1.4 million nearly-expired doses of Pfizer’s vaccine to the Palestinian territories.
In exchange, the PA would provide Israel with the same number of doses in September or October, after it received a fresh shipment, according to a joint statement from Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s office and the nation’s defence and health ministries. (Bennett assumed office on Sunday, replacing longtime Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.)
But almost as soon as the first 90,000 doses arrived from Israel, the PA said it would send them back.
“After the technical teams in the ministry of health examined the first batch of the Pfizer vaccines that were received this evening from Israel, it became clear that the 90,000 doses received do not conform to the specifications contained in the agreement,” Ibrahim Melhem, a PA spokesperson, said at a Friday press conference.
PA Health Minister Mai Alkaila said the doses were supposed to expire in July or August, but the expiration date turned out to be in June, according to Reuters.
“That’s not enough time to use them, so we rejected them,” Alkaila said.
Bennett’s office did not immediately respond to Reuters’ request for comment.
For the past several months, Israelis and Palestinians have witnessed starkly different vaccine rollouts.
Israel has vaccinated a greater share of its population than just about any country so far: around 63% of Israelis have received at least one dose. Many scientists believe that Israel has now reached herd immunity, the threshold beyond which the virus can’t easily pass from person to person.
The nation rolled back the last of its coronavirus restrictions in early June: Businesses can now operate at full capacity, and residents no longer have to show proof that they’ve been vaccinated to enter restaurants, sporting events, or entertainment venues.
Meanwhile, less than 9% of the Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza Strip – around 30% of those eligible to get vaccinated – has received at least one vaccine dose, according to Palestinian officials. Many of these doses hail from other countries – including Russia, China, and the United Arab Emirates – as well as COVAX, a global alliance spearheaded by the World Health Organization to vaccinate the world’s poorest nations.
Palestinians in East Jerusalem have access to Israeli health insurance, so they’re eligible to be vaccinated by Israel, but those vaccinations don’t extend to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. As a result, several human-rights organizations have called on Israel to give Palestinians vaccines right away.
“In the Palestinian communities, if they’re not vaccinating as much and then there’s a new strain that comes up that can evade the vaccine protection, then that’s going to be a big issue,” Jorge Alfaro-Murillo, an associate research scientist at the Yale School of Public Health, previously told Insider.
Israel has said that the PA is responsible for its own vaccination campaign. But the nation’s new health minister, Nitzan Horowitz, tweeted Friday that the “important exchange of vaccines” would benefit both sides. That same day, the non-profit organization Physicians for Human Rights Israel called the deal “too little too late.”
The Israeli parliament on Sunday voted to form a new coalition government, unseating Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has led the country for the last 12 years.
Naftali Bennett, a longtime Netanyahu ally turned adversary, assumed the role of prime minister and was sworn in Sunday, according to a report from the Associated Press. Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, will continue as leader of the Likud party and is now the opposition leader.
The vote to form a new coalition government among eight political parties passed by a narrow 60-59 margin, according to the report.
“On behalf of the American people, I congratulate Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Alternate Prime Minister, and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, and all the members of the new Israeli cabinet,” President Joe Biden said in a statement Sunday.
“Israel has no better friend than the United States,” he continued. “The bond that unites our people is evidence of our shared values and decades of close cooperation and as we continue to strengthen our partnership, the United States remains unwavering in its support for Israel’s security.”
As Insider’s Joshua Zitser previously reported, Bennett is the head of the country’s right-wing Yamina party and is an ultra-nationalist multimillionaire.
According to the AP, Netanyahu sat quietly during the vote. After the vote, he shook Bennett’s hand and briefly sat in the opposition leader’s chair before he walked out of the chamber, the AP report said.
After 12 years in power, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is on the verge of being ousted. Though he’s hit a low point in his historic career, experts and former US diplomats say Netanyahu will remain a force to be reckoned with and his political demise could actually push the Israeli leader to become more involved in US politics and elections.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if [Netanyahu] starts intervening in our own elections at a personal level and links himself to Trump more and Trumpism, and plays the Republican card,” Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland, told Insider.
“Don’t underestimate that, because he’s not just going to focus on Israeli politics – he thinks he has a card to play in American politics. And I think he does, especially given our polarized political environment,” Telhami added.
Telhami said that people on the far right in the US looking for allies against the Biden administration could see Netanyahu as a top candidate in that regard. With the Democratic party increasingly divided over US-Israel relations, and progressives pushing for an approach that shows more concern for Palestinians, Netanyahu could look to the exploit the situation.
Netanyahu sees American politics as “part of his legitimization,” Telhami said, and “because he’s linked himself so tightly to Republican politics and even to Trump personally – and certainly Trump’s people like Jared Kushner and David Friedman – he’s going to be rooting for Republicans to win.”
The Israeli leader has already inserted himself into US affairs in ways that other world leaders wouldn’t dare to. As the Obama administration worked to finalize the Iran nuclear deal in 2015, for example, Netanyahu gave a speech before a joint session of Congress with the aim of torpedoing the agreement. Congressional Republicans invited Netanyahu to give the speech without consulting the White House, and the address was perceived as a major insult to then-President Barack Obama.
No longer being prime minister could potentially free Netanyahu up to be even more interventionist in the US, Telhami said, in the sense that he won’t have to be as mindful of the implications of his actions.
If the deal to form a new government made by a fragile coalition of eight opposition parties is ratified in the Knesset – Israel’s parliament – on Sunday, Netanyahu will be replaced as prime minister by Naftali Bennett, his former chief of staff and the head of the right-wing Yamina party.
Bennett is considered to be even further to the right than Netanyahu.
But if Israeli lawmakers vote to approve the tenuous coalition, much of Bennett’s energy will be spent on trying to keep the alliance together. Meanwhile, Netanyahu would concentrate his efforts on breaking the government apart.
“At least in the short term, [Netanyahu] will be the opposition leader. That’s a position that has status and prominence in the Israeli system … In that role, he’ll travel to DC … and his voice will be heard. He’ll use it not only to express his views, but to try to put pressure on Bennett and into the coalition to try to split it apart,” according to a former US diplomat who spoke to Insider on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of this topic.
Though Netanyahu will look to the US as a venue for his political revival, this does not necessarily mean the Biden administration will suddenly become preoccupied with the Middle East. President Joe Biden has not made the region a top foreign policy priority, and that’s unlikely to change. While Netanyahu has become a household name in US politics, Bennett is fairly unknown and doesn’t hold the same sway or influence.
“Assuming Bennett becomes prime minister, he’ll come to DC, he’ll do business with Biden. They will agree on some things, they’ll disagree on others. He’ll visit the Hill – but it won’t pack the same punch. That gives Biden some space,” the former diplomat said.
But as Biden learned via the recent fighting between Israel and Hamas, neglecting the Middle East as a US president can have dire consequences.
In the meantime, the former diplomat said: “[Netanyahu] clearly has relationships and friendships or alliances with Republican politicians and Evangelicals. I’m sure there will be those who will continue to give him a platform and lift up his voice. The [Israeli] government will be shaky … There are definitely reasons why it could not survive and then he’ll have a shot to come back as prime minister. I don’t remove him from the story. He’ll still have a voice.”
Both of his parents are graduates of the University of California, Berkeley
Bennett was born in the port city Haifa in 1972. He descends from Holocaust survivors on his mother’s side and has Polish, German, and Dutch roots, according to Haaretz.
His parents, Myrna and Jim Bennett, are American but now live in Haifa. They visited Israel for a vacation after the Six-Day War in 1967 and ended up settling, according to The Jewish News of Northern California. Bennett’s father is a fifth-generation San Franciscan, the paper reported.
His parents are graduates of the University of California, Berkeley, and were “left-wingers” until they settled in Israel and embraced nationalism, his mother told Haaretz.
“In the US, we were against the Vietnam War. We went to Berkeley. We were automatically like left-wingers. When we came to Israel, I felt I loved the place I was living in,” she said in a 2013 interview.
Bennett and his two brothers, Asher and Daniel, were raised in a modern Orthodox Jewish home in Haifa. A childhood friend told Haaretz that Bennett grew up in an atmosphere that was “very Zionist, right-wing.”
He was involved in the ‘Qana Massacre’ that killed 106 civilians
Bennett began his compulsory military service with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in 1990. He served as a soldier in Sayeret Matkal – the special forces unit tasked with counter-terrorism missions and hostage rescue outside of Israel’s borders – and as a company commander of the elite Maglan unit, The Jerusalem Post reported. Maglan is a secretive reconnaissance unit that specializes in using advanced technology and weaponry behind enemy lines, according to Ynet.
His role in one military operation, known as the Operation Grapes of Wrath or the April Aggression, is particularly controversial.
In April 1996, Bennett was the commander of a Maglan unit of 67 soldiers. While in Qana, a village in Southern Lebanon, his unit came under mortar fire from Hezbollah fighters.
The attackers reportedly fled into a nearby United Nations compound sheltering hundreds of Lebanese civilians. Bennett radioed for support against the Hezbollah mortar team, according to The Times of Israel, and the IDF artillery strike fired 36 high explosive shells. But 13 shells struck the UN compound, killing 106 civilians in what is now called the “Qana Massacre.”
In the lead-up to the 2015 Israeli elections, Israeli journalist Ravid Drucker cited an anonymous “senior army figure” report that said Bennett’s radio call for support was “hysterical” and showed poor judgment, The Times of Israel reported.
Bennett called Drucker’s charges a “vanity of vanities, nonsense, a pile of bulls–t.” Other officers familiar with the incident dismissed the charges and said that Bennett displayed “level-headedness,” according to The Jerusalem Post.
Bennett would go onto boast of having killed many militants during his military service. “I already killed lots of Arabs in my life, and there is absolutely no problem with that,” he said, according to The Washington Post. He claims to have been misquoted, Israeli media reported.
Bennett is still a reservist, ranked as a major, and was called up during the 2006 Lebanon War, The Australian said.
Bennett led Wikipedia workshops on how to make the website more Israel-friendly
After his military service, Bennett studied for a law degree at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In 1999, he married his wife Gilat – a professional pastry chef from a secular Israeli family.
He returned to Israel as a reservist in 2006 and then embarked on a political career. He served as Netanyahu’s Chief of Staff from 2006 to 2008. He also helped Netanyahu win his primary campaign to lead the Likud party in 2007.
In 2009, he became the CEO of Soluto – a now-defunct software company. He eventually stood down from the role to become director-general of the Yesha Council – a pro-settlement group of organizations.
In 2010, he co-founded a right-wing political organization, My Israel, with Zionist firebrand Ayelet Shaked. The group, along with the Yesha Council, worked to propagate right-wing Zionism online. They launched workshops to teach participants how to rewrite Wikipedia articles to make them more pro-Israel, The Guardian reported in 2010.
In 2012, Bennett left Likud – the party currently chaired by Netanyahu – and joined the Orthodox Jewish, pro-settlement Jewish Home party.
In 2013, he became the party leader with 67 percent of the vote and later won 12 seats in Israel’s Knesset. He renounced his American citizenship to join the Knesset, The Jerusalem Post reported.
He was appointed Minister of the Economy, Minister of Religious Services, and, later, the Minister of Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs, serving under prime minister Netanyahu.
While acting as a minister in these roles, Bennett sold Soluto for $130 million in 2013, according to Haaretz. He pocketed millions from the sale, the paper said.
In 2015, he was re-elected and became Minister of Education. In this role, he banned schools from inviting organizations that condemned Israel’s actions in the occupied West Bank, Ynet reported.
Tensions between Bennett and Netanyahu
Bennett had previously viewed Netanyahu as his mentor. He looked up to him so much that he even named his eldest son, Yoni, after Netanyahu’s brother, who was killed in 1976, Reuters reported.
Their working relationship soured after a mysterious falling out in 2008 at the end of Bennett’s tenure as his chief of staff, according to The Washington Post. The argument was, according to Israeli media reports, related to Netanyahu’s wife, Sara.
A year later, they clashed again after Bennett criticized Netanyahu for slowing down settlement construction, the Post added.
In 2018, tensions between Netanyahu and Bennett escalated. Bennett wanted to be Defense Minister but was thwarted by Netanyahu, who then took the job for himself, Reuters reported.
Bennett announced that his party, Jewish Home, would leave Netanyahu’s government. He later reneged and remained in the coalition, The Times of Israel reported.
He then shocked the nation by splitting from Jewish Home and with Ayelet Shaked and other lawmakers to form the anti-Palestinian New Right party in 2018.
The party failed to win any seats, and the New Right formed an electoral coalition with several right-wing, religious parties to bolster their electoral chances. This became known as Yamina, which won seven seats in the March 2021 election under Bennett’s leadership.
Yamina’s core principles include opposing the establishment of a Palestinian state, developing illegal settlements, and defeating terrorism.
Due to the logistics of coalition-forming in the Israeli political system, Bennett, with only seven seats, became known as the “kingmaker’ during negotiations to form a new government and set himself up to become the next Israeli prime minister.
As part of these negotiations, Bennett had to walk back on previous comments made about United Arab List chairman Mansour Abbas – an Israeli-Arab politician who has joined the coalition.
Bennett had previously called Abbas a “supporter of terrorism,” but, now, the pair have become strange political bedfellows. This week, he called Abbas a “brave leader” and a “decent man” and said that the partnership would “turn over a new leaf in the relationship between the state and Arab Israelis,” Haaretz reported.
‘I told my kids their father will be the most hated person in Israel’
Those hoping that Netanyahu’s ousting will bring a substantive change to the Israeli-Palestinian relationship may be left wanting. Bennett shares a similarly hardline, right-wing approach to security issues.
Several Palestinian officials told Al Jazeera that they expect Netanyahu’s replacement to pursue the same “Greater Israel” agenda.
Bennett favors the unilateral annexation of the occupied West Bank. “We have to mark the dream, and the dream is that Judea and Samaria will be part of the sovereign State of Israel. We have to act today, and we must give our lives,” he said in 2017.
But Bennett has said that, as part of his coalition agreement, he will not agree to the annexation of any West Bank territory or the building of new settlements, The Times of Israel reported.
He also opposes the creation of a Palestinian state. “I will do everything in my power to make sure they never get a state,” he told The New Yorker in 2013.
How he will find common ground between his ultra-nationalist, religiously conservative views and Lapid’s center-left, pragmatic approach is the focus of political discussion in Israel. When asked about this, his response is simple and ambiguous: “We’ll manage.”
Bennett is also already anticipating ferocious criticism and cries of betrayal for joining the coalition. He told Channel 12 News: “I told my kids that their father was going to be the most hated person in the country.”