Netanyahu: Israeli COVID-19 vaccines not part of prisoner swap with Syria

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was coy about  media reports of a secret deal in which Israel agreed to purchase Russian Sputnik COVID-19 vaccines on behalf of Syria as part of last week’s prisoner exchange with Syria.

“Not a single Israeli COVID-19 vaccine went for that matter,” Netanyahu said at a public appearance on Saturday, during which he was quizzed on the issue by a KAN reporter.

Netanyahu referred to the deal brokered by Russian President Vladimir Putin in which a young Israeli woman who had wandered into Syria was returned in exchange for the release of two Syrian shepherds.

“We brought back the young woman and I have thanked President Putin for this, but I respect Russia’s request not to say anything more,” Netanyahu said.

Speculation with regard to a secret component to the deal has been fueled by an unusual secret government meeting held Wednesday night in advance of an otherwise seemingly simple exchange.

Labor Party head MK Merav Michaeli appealed to Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chairman Zvi Hauser to hold a debate on the decision to censor information about the deal.

“There is a real concern, sir, that Prime Minister Netanyahu and [Alternate Prime Minister and] Defense Minister [Benny] Gantz have abused their authority and censored the full details of the agreement to prevent a public debate” on the price of the deal, Michaeli said.

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Among those who reported on the matter was Richard Silverstein in his Tikun Olam blog. “Today, a well-informed Israeli source has revealed the full extent of the negotiation. Russia, in order to sweeten the deal, proposed that Israel pay millions for several million doses of the former’s SPUTNIK COVID vaccine to be administered to millions of Syrians. Israel agreed (hence the cabinet signoff),” Silverstein wrote.

“But both Bibi Netanyahu and Benny Gantz do not want Israelis to know that they are offering such resources to Syria, especially because they are in the midst of the election campaign,” he added.

Syria’s state news agency SANA rejected the report.

“Circulating such fabricated information about a secret term in the exchange process, related to getting coronavirus vaccines from the Israeli authorities, aim to defame Syria and distort the patriotic and humanitarian side of the process,” it stated.

According to KAN News, Israel requested permission from Russia to disclose what was promised to Syria under the prisoner swap deal, but the Kremlin reportedly has not “changed its position on the issue.”

The issue was noted by Joint List faction chairman Ahmad Tibi in a Friday tweet.

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“Do we have to wait for a Jew to cross the border into Gaza in order for [Palestinians] to receive vaccines?” Tibi wrote, following a comment on how he had raised a demand in the Knesset for vaccines to be transferred to Gaza. The young woman who crossed into Syria returned to Israel in the early hours of Friday, after government hostage negotiator Yaron Bloom headed to Moscow on Thursday night to bring her back.

On Thursday, the IDF handed over two shepherds to Red Cross representatives through the Quentin Crossing in Syria, after they had been apprehended by IDF troops east of the security fence in the Golan Heights area in Israeli territory.

Following her return, Netanyahu spoke with the young woman’s mother who thanked him for his efforts, according to a PMO statement. “Israel will always do everything in its power in order to help its citizens,” Netanyahu said.

The prime minister also issued a statement thanking Putin for his efforts, noting he had spoken with him twice.

Gantz also released a statement explaining that he had spoken with his Russian counterpart on the matter and publicly thanked him.

“Two weeks ago, we received an alert that an Israeli citizen had been taken into the custody of Syrian security forces. She willingly decided to cross the border- an incident which we’ll continue to investigate.

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“We immediately began working to ensure her swift return. We made clear that the woman was not in an official capacity and that this instance is humanitarian and not at all related to defense,” Gantz said.

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