A vaccination centre in Jerusalem. Vaccine distribution has moved quickly in Israel Credit: Shutterstock/DEBBIE HILL/UPI

Why has Israel done so well with the Covid-19 vaccine?

A sense of emergency—and Benjamin Netanyahu’s election prospects—have led to Israel leading the world
January 29, 2021

Israel is the world leader in distributing coronavirus vaccinations per head. As of late January, more than 2.4m residents out of a population of nine million had received their first dose—and while other countries still focus on vaccinating elderly people and the chronically ill, the Israeli government has announced healthy over-40s will now be eligible. Given the country’s religious geography, it’s tempting to describe this as a miracle. But there are some practical reasons behind its stunning success.

Israel not only has an infrastructure geared towards dealing with national emergencies but a uniquely well-organised healthcare system. The country is small, both geographically and population-wise, and the sense of emergency is fuelling compliance. “What makes the Israeli operation unique is the co-operation of different agencies, not only within the health authorities but including the interior and defence ministries, the ambulance services, home front command,” said Asher Salmon, at the Israeli Ministry of Health. “There is a national headquarters and it’s a very well-organised project, but with some flexibility. For instance, at the end of each day, any extra vaccines are given out to first responders and ambulance crews, which also reduces the level of risk.”

Vaccines are administered round the clock through a digitised healthcare system—all those over 18 are registered—via four private health maintenance organisations that compete with each other for clients. Prominent ultra-orthodox rabbis were also recruited to exhort their constituencies, some of which have been reluctant to comply with anti-Covid-19 measures, to accept the vaccination.

And then there is the political dimension. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is preparing to fight yet another election on 23rd March—the fourth in two years—and there is a lot riding on his successful resolution of this crisis. Reported daily case numbers are still disturbingly high, while a third strict lockdown is in force. Nonetheless, Netanyahu’s election promise is to have the economy functioning again by March and allow people to gather for Passover, which falls just after election day. “We will be the first country in the world to emerge from the coronavirus,” Netanyahu vowed, as he announced a reported deal with Pfizer in which Israel would provide data in return for expedited supplies. Israel was reported to have paid well over the odds to ensure the early delivery of millions of doses so it could begin the rollout on 19th December.

It’s certainly a matter of huge national pride. Jewish Israelis feel that their nation—despite its infuriating politics, endless bureaucracy and political corruption—fundamentally has their backs. It’s also been a rare positive story about Israel; a boost for its soft power and image as a start-up nation and land of innovation.

But this domestic success has been accompanied by widespread criticism that there has been no similar vaccine rollout to the nearly five million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. A coalition of Israeli, Palestinian and international health groups have called for Israel to fulfil what they described as its health obligations under the Geneva Conventions as an occupying force.

For its part, Israel has made much of the fact that all its residents in Israel proper, regardless of faith or ethnicity, are included in its rollout—including Palestinian citizens of Israel—and that the Palestinian Authority (PA) made no formal request for vaccine supplies. According to the Oslo Accords, the PA is responsible for healthcare in the territories it administrates. Ran Goldstein, executive director of Physicians for Human Rights—Israel, said that this was a baseless argument. “Israel is the occupying power,” he said. “It’s not up to the Palestinians to ask—Israel doesn’t ask the Palestinians if it wants to build a new settlement, for instance.”

There is a wider public health issue. Although the Gaza Strip remains virtually sealed off from Israel, there is no such impermeable barrier with the West Bank. Salmon acknowledged that Israeli citizens could not be protected from the virus as long as Palestinians were unvaccinated. At the same time, he argued, Israel had to prioritise its own citizens. “If there are extra vaccines, the Palestinians will be the first to get them,” he continued, adding that the PA was due to receive millions of doses from Russia and the UN. “The West Bank and Gaza will be vaccinated before many European countries are,”
he continued.

Most Israelis find it infuriating that they are not being allowed to celebrate their astonishing vaccination success without having it tainted by the Palestinian issue. But as much as the occupation has been sidelined from the national debate, the issue remains live.