Forget about oil and arms. Coronavirus vaccines are emerging as the newest currency of choice in the Middle East.
Israel’s reopening of its economy, combined with a murky prisoner swap with Syria and the arrival of a batch of vaccines in the Gaza Strip, have all underscored how those with access to the vaccines have political power in the turbulent region.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been at the forefront of this trend, pinning his re-election hopes on the success of his campaign to vaccinate Israel’s adult population. At the same time, he has offered rewards to those who vaccinate and punishments to those who do not.
Israel has rolled out the world’s fastest vaccination campaign, administering at least one dose to more than half its 9.3 million people and the required two doses to about one-third in less than two months.
In contrast to the long waits seen in Europe and the US, vaccines are plentiful and available, almost on demand, to anyone who wants one. Clinics have even offered free food and cappuccinos to help lure reluctant holdouts to come in and get the jab.
‘Timing is good’
Netanyahu’s efforts finally seem to be bearing fruit, and the number of new coronavirus infections and serious cases is dropping. That enabled the government on Sunday to lift a number of restrictions, reopening stores, shopping malls, and many schools after a two-month lockdown. In the coming weeks, all schools and restaurants are expected to reopen, just in time for the March 23 election.
“The timing is good for him,” said Gideon Rahat, a political scientist at Israel’s Hebrew University.
Whether it is enough to divert attention from an ongoing corruption trial and the broader economic damage caused by the pandemic is another issue.
Much will depend on Netanyahu’s “agenda-setting”, Rahat said. “He will talk about the vaccines all the time,” he said, while others will focus on his missteps over the past year.
Hundreds of thousands of people have lost their jobs and businesses during a series of lockdowns, and there is widespread public anger over the flouting of lockdown restrictions by the ultra-Orthodox religious community, one of Netanyahu’s key political allies. Many say Netanyahu waited too long to close the country’s main airport, allowing fast-spreading variants of the virus to infect the unvaccinated.
Sticking to his script, Netanyahu on Saturday unveiled his “Green Pass” programme, which will allow the fully vaccinated to attend cultural events, fly abroad and patronise restaurants and health clubs. These services and amenities will remain off-limits for those who do not get immunised.
“I ask everyone who has not been vaccinated – go be vaccinated. You will have the Green Pass and you will also be able to benefit from it,” Netanyahu said during a photo op at a Tel Aviv-area gym.
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