Anshel Pfeffer and Ben Caspit are two of the most respected Israeli journalists: very well-informed, articulate and strongly opinionated. They are the authors of the two existing and extensive biographies of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. They also share a deep antipathy—even antagonism—towards him.
A few weeks ago, Netanyahu began a public campaign to induce the new Israeli government, headed by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, to immediately start administering a third dose of the COVID-19 vaccine to elderly Israelis. He minced no words: “[T]here is no other way to save lives and leave the economy open. … We have already paid for [another two million doses]; this is what we did before the new government took power, and they must be delivered now.”
Already last March, Netanyahu had stated that “we are working on bringing a further 36 million vaccines for the citizens of Israel. … The vaccines we have, no one knows how long they last … We need to prepare for the worst scenario. The worst scenario is that we have to vaccinate every half year.” Nevertheless, but not surprisingly, both journalist-biographers saw only selfish and depraved motives behind Netanyahu’s persistent calls for the urgent vaccine booster.
In an article on July 26, Pfeffer characterized Netanyahu’s warnings as a “scare campaign,” “part of his Churchillian complex” and “an irresponsible act of desperation by a former prime minister who is anxious to remain relevant and to keep being associated with the vaccines.”
He conceded that “Israel may well decide to administer a third dose of the vaccine in the coming weeks and months”—something that the Bennett government indeed decided to do a mere three days later.
In a report on July 28, Caspit claimed that Netanyahu was “urgently pushing for a third booster dose after it was recently discovered that his coronavirus antibody level had decreased,” and that “Netanyahu’s [recommendation] was directly motivated by his testing.”
The very next day, the government authorized the booster to all Israelis over the age of 60.
Even Netanyahu’s adversaries have praised him in the past for purchasing millions of vaccines ahead of almost every other world leader. Effectively, what he had accomplished was even more significant than that.
In order to secure the necessary doses in 2020, he managed single-handedly to convince Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla that Israel would be the ideal country to showcase the effectiveness of the novel vaccine. In so doing, he all but forged a strategic alliance with Pfizer, such that the giant pharmaceutical simply cannot allow Israel to fail, or else its whole mRNA vaccination enterprise may fail.
As a result of this alliance, it is extremely likely that Pfizer will always provide Israel with enough doses of the vaccine as soon as needed. Moreover, Israel will almost certainly be the first country in the world to receive a new mRNA vaccine if and when a highly resistant variant develops.
One could reasonably speculate that Netanyahu made his urgent recommendation because Pfizer shared with him internal data demonstrating a considerable drop, six months after the second dose, in the average neutralizing antibody titer of the thousands of volunteers who had participated in its Phase 3 trial. This drop was taking place while the highly contagious Delta variant required far greater titers for its neutralization than the heretofore prevailing variants. Netanyahu himself admitted that he had recently spoken to the CEOs of both Pfizer and Moderna, and it is also conceivable that the latter confirmed the former’s data and conclusions.
All world governments made mistakes in the management of the COVID-19 pandemic—some more than others. That is most certainly true of Western democracies. The Netanyahu government is no exception, but it succeeded in accomplishing something that practically no other did: It almost eliminated the disease as it existed in the country until the arrival of the Delta variant. It did so by securing the necessary vaccine doses and rapidly implementing an efficient vaccination program.
By doubling down on the vaccination approach for the population at least over the age of 12, it is possible, though by no means certain, that the Delta surge will be defeated. For the sake of all Israelis, and indeed of all humankind, let us hope that the Netanyahu-Pfizer strategic alliance continues to bear fruit as before.
Julio Messer is a former president of American Friends of Likud.