By the end of New Year's Day this year, Israel had administered more than 1 million vaccines to people, with more than 150,000 being vaccinated daily. The country aims to vaccinate 2 million by the end of January, with many receiving the two doses of the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine against COVID-19. This is an unprecedented rollout, beating records elsewhere in the world. It is not only the largest per capita in number; Israel also is providing more vaccines daily than many other countries. I was one of those in Israel who received a first dose. What I saw while waiting in line at Jerusalem's Pais Arena, a sports stadium converted into a national vaccination center, is how a country can come together to deal with a pandemic.
The world can learn from this. First, Israel has been flexible and put a priority on vaccinations. Israel sought to provide the vaccine to people over age 60. It has made a national effort to vaccinate as many people as possible, providing extra doses to walk-ins at the end of the day so that none is wasted. This is because the Pfizer vaccine needs to be kept cold and, once opened, must be given out or thrown away. Israel's model tells us how to harness the struggle against the pandemic on a national level — and how to make it a national security priority.
Israel harnessed spies, counter-terrorism technology, and the army to deal with the crisis.
From the beginning of the pandemic in February 2020, Israel combined its national security apparatus, diplomats and health providers into a singular effort to deal with the pandemic. "We are preparing for the worst," a diplomat told me back then. This was prior to the World Health Organization defining the crisis as a pandemic. By March, Israel had entered a national lockdown. Its strategy was similar to other countries, fumbling with new guidelines and learning along the way, but the government also harnessed the Mossad spy agency, technology usually used to counter terrorism, and the Israeli army to deal with the crisis.
For example, Mossad was asked to help bring test kits, ventilators and protective gear to aid the effort. Not every aspect of this national security effort was welcomed. Using software designed to track terrorists in order to track people's movements was controversial, and the full use of this technology was not rolled out. Deploying the army to help with lockdowns, and to aid in delivery of food to the elderly and vulnerable, was welcomed but also appeared heavy-handed in some cases. Soldiers sent to man the roadblocks were conscripts, and their goal was to aid the police, not use force. In the end, Israel was well-placed to do this because the army's Home Front Command has practice dealing with national disasters and has dealt with rocket threats for decades.
I saw the army's success firsthand in spring when it was tasked with converting hotels, empty of tourists because of travel restrictions, into places for people to quarantine or recover from COVID-19. The hotels were a pleasant spot for younger people with the virus and those with milder symptoms to recuperate. Hospitals did not overflow.
Where Israel gambled — and where it has succeeded so far — is in investing in vaccines. It scrambled to acquire Pfizer and Moderna vaccines by the millions of doses, enough to provide the necessary two doses to the entire adult population. This process has put the country far ahead of its neighbors, with the exception of wealthy Gulf states Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). There are still questions about how Israel will vaccinate public sectors that are suspicious of the vaccine. This has been an issue throughout the campaign against the virus. Local media have reported that Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Israelis and some in the Arab minority are either ignoring guidelines or suspicious of the vaccine. In general, though, the national effort has not met with conflict, despite Israel being a divided society in other ways. Every country has minority groups and making sure they feel confident in health guidelines is important.
Israel has dealt with the pandemic as if it is a national security issue, not just a health issue.
Perhaps the main lesson from Israel is to deal with the pandemic as if it is a national security issue, not just a health issue. This has reduced problems because it has been viewed as an across-the-board fight. Not every country has the conscript army that Israel has to do things such as this, but many have civil emergency forces. Countries can prioritize health as a national security issue for the future. Second, Israel has been flexible, self-critical and willing to change. That means not discarding vaccine doses just because you don't have precisely the right set of people waiting in line, and instead giving them to people waiting on stand-by. Flexibility, combined with a mass effort, works wonders.
Where Israel and other countries still need to improve is in explaining what comes next. When will the airports facilitate tourism again, and when will costly quarantines end? What is the exit strategy? In December, 50,000 Israelis flew to Dubai because the UAE, which just signed a peace deal with Israel, was labeled a safe country to travel to. Weeks later, the government reversed course and started quarantining those returning. People are hungry to travel again, and opening up corridors of safe travel with clear and efficient testing is necessary.
The battle against the virus has been viewed as a war effort in Israel, and the battle to get things back to normal should be launched with the same urgency.
Seth Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post.