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 don’t.
Israel has jumped out to 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 a 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. 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. After saving lives, the immediate focus should be on saving the livelihood.