With a late Saturday evening injection in his upper arm, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, became one of the first world leaders to be vaccinated against the coronavirus. “I feel great,” he said. “Everybody should go get vaccinated.”
On Monday, Israel — one of the few countries after the US and the UK to begin formally vaccinating its citizens — will start the race to inoculate as many as 60,000 people a day, with millions of doses of both the Pfizer and Moderna jabs en route to the Jewish state.
In private, his aides said, the Pfizer jab was also the starting shot to a completely different race: looming elections that will determine Mr Netanyahu’s political legacy as Israel’s longest-serving premier.
His hope, aides say, is that the vaccination drive will help him avoid the stalemate that followed three previous elections over the past two years or worse — an outright loss to a rightwing challenger to his throne.
“You can have elections with corona in the future or corona in the past,” said an adviser who spoke to Mr Netanyahu about election schedules in the past week. “Of course, we want them to be when the Israeli public is looking forward, not backwards.”
If all goes to plan, close to half of Israel’s adult population will be vaccinated by late April. Aides estimate that would be enough to start easing restrictions that have choked the economy, sparked nationwide protests and become a symbol for Israel’s bungled response to the virus.
“It is absolutely in Netanyahu's interest to portray that he single-handedly brought the vaccine to Israel, which is why he has pushed his personal involvement at every opportunity,” said Dahlia Scheindlin, a veteran pollster who has advised several Israeli and international politicians.
“I don’t know if it’s necessarily true that people will be able to pretend like corona is in the past, but the gradual easing of restrictions and fewer protests from discontented communities can’t hurt.”
That Israel will soon face another election is a foregone conclusion, analysts say. Mr Netanyahu’s coalition has almost collapsed several times in recent weeks and faces a make-or-break deadline on December 23, the cut-off for passing a budget, without which the Knesset is automatically set to dissolve. Mr Netanyahu has been loath to present a budget because, under the terms of the coalition agreement, if the government then collapses with a budget in place Benny Gantz, the retired-army-chief-turned-politician, becomes interim prime minister.
So far, Mr Netanyahu has eked out one budget extension from his coalition partners. Another seems unlikely.
Officials in the finance ministry, controlled by one of Mr Netanyahu’s closest allies, Israel Katz, said they have not yet been asked to prepare a budget. “There is no budget to pass, there is nothing to discuss,” said one official. “There is nothing but chaos and orders from above.”
Should the government be dissolved this week, a poll at the end of March is likely.
The arrival of the vaccine has provided Mr Netanyahu with a boost ahead of the prospective elections, particularly in the face of his unfolding trial.
In February, his trial on corruption charges will pick up steam, with government prosecutors set to present evidence that he took hundreds of thousands of dollars in cigars and champagne from wealthy friends seeking favours, and that he offered to change regulations to win favourable coverage from a critical news outlet.
Mr Netanyahu denies the charges, calling them a political witch hunt. But the trial has animated a moribund opposition and splintered his own Likud party, resulting in the high-profile departure of Gideon Sa’ar, a spurned ally who now polls at just under 10 per cent of the national vote.
“Every election is important. But this one is the most important of his life,” said a personal friend, who said Mr Netanyahu sees the vaccine as “the cure to all problems, not just corona”.
Mr Netanyahu has made the speedy procurement and approval of the two vaccines a hallmark of his recent public appearances. His policy, he said this month, is “as many vaccines as possible, from as many sources as possible, for as many citizens as possible and as quickly as possible”.
In November, the day after Pfizer announced the results of the efficacy trials for its vaccine, Mr Netanyahu called up Albert Bourla, the chief executive of the vaccine maker, and struck up a conversation on their shared Jewishness.
The speed with which Mr Netanyahu has obtained millions of doses of the vaccine contrasts with what Israelis have widely viewed as a dysfunctional response to the coronavirus pandemic. He has fought and overruled health officials who wanted targeted lockdowns, preferring instead nationwide measures.
“We were indeed very frustrated that some of our suggestions will not be taken because of a different non-epidemiological consideration,” said Nadav Davidovich, an epidemiologist who advises the government on its response.
The targeted lockdowns would have disproportionately affected the ultraorthodox community, which supports Mr Netanyahu unequivocally and has been a recurring source of outbreaks. The nationwide lockdowns prompted large protests against him.
Now, though, the national conversation has moved entirely to vaccination. The president and the chief of the army staff received their shots, and television news carried footage of the arriving vaccines.
“Israel is going to be one of the first countries in the world to have a mass vaccination campaign, and that is a great success,” said Mr Davidovich. “There are many different politicians would like to take the credit for that.”