Israeli plan to share vaccines frozen by legal questions

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FILE - In this Feb. 20, 2021 file photo, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talks to the media during a visit to the Fitness gym ahead of the re-opening of the branch in Petah Tikva, Israel. Israel's attorney general says a plan by Netanyahu to ship surplus coronavirus vaccines to diplomatic allies has been frozen. In a statement, Thursday, Feb. 25, the attorney general says he's conducting a legal review in response to queries from various officials. (AP Photo/Tal Shahar, Yediot Ahronot, Pool, File)

JERUSALEM – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's controversial plan to ship surplus coronavirus vaccines to a group of allied nations was frozen Thursday following a legal challenge to the deal, his office announced.

It was the latest twist in a saga that has raised questions at home about Netanyahu’s decision-making authority as well as his move to help far-flung nations in Africa and Latin America at a time when the neighboring Palestinian territories are struggling to secure their own vaccine supplies. The plan has also illustrated how at a time of global shortages, the vaccine has become an asset that can be used for diplomatic gain.

Netanyahu announced on Wednesday that he had personally decided to share small quantities of surplus Israeli vaccines with allied nations. He did not identify the countries, but an Israeli TV station said they included a number of nations that have supported Israel's claims to the contested city of Jerusalem as its capital.

Netanyahu's governing partner and rival, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, on Thursday called for a halt in the shipments, saying Israel’s stockpile of vaccines is the property of the state. He attacked the prime minister’s go-it-alone approach and questioned Netanyahu’s claims that there are really excess supplies when Israelis still have not been fully vaccinated.

“This is not the first time that significant defense and diplomatic decisions are being made behind the backs of the relevant bodies, while possibly damaging our national security, our foreign relations, and the rule of law,” Gantz wrote. “This is a pattern which impinges upon our ability to manage the country soundly.”

He demanded the matter be brought before the country’s Security Cabinet for discussions and said he had asked the attorney general for an opinion.

Late Thursday, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit said he had received a number of requests to review Netanyahu's decision. One of those requests, he said, came from Netanyahu's national security adviser, who told him he had been instructed to "freeze any action on the matter."

An official in Netanyahu's office confirmed that the national security adviser had asked for the delay in response to the legal challenge. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to talk to the media.