By Jeffrey Heller
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Heading into Israel's fourth election in two years, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is hoping the success of his government's COVID-19 vaccination programme will also serve as a political lifeline.
The 71-year-old conservative, who is on trial for corruption and accused by critics of mismanaging the pandemic, has made the vaccine front and centre of his campaign speeches, social media posts and interviews.
But with opinion polls predicting no clear winner in the March 23 ballot and challengers on Netanyahu's right poised to siphon some of his traditional supporters, it is not clear if his strategy will pay off.
"We are the only ones who can succeed (in emerging from the pandemic) because I brought millions of vaccine doses," Netanyahu said in an interview with Israel's Channel 13 TV last week.
"Thirty world leaders called me. They told me, 'we tip our hat to the way you ran things, with the health care services,'" he said.
More than half the Israeli population have been given a first dose of the Pfizer /BioNTech vaccine, and nearly 40% have received both shots, far more than in any other country in the world.
Netanyahu has said the economy should be back to full swing by April 5. (Graphic: tmsnrt.rs/34pvUyi)
But Israel's longest-serving leader is under growing pressure. In addition to his indictment at home on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, all of which he denies, the International Criminal Court has announced an investigation into war crimes in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories during his tenure.
And opponents, saying any Israeli leader would have scrambled to secure vaccines, note that the government had to impose three national lockdowns to try to stem spiking infection rates, and that some 6,000 people died of the virus.
Israeli voters have also been feeling the economic strain: official figures showed unemployment at 18% in January.
Ayala Hasson, a Channel 13 news anchor, said Netanyahu's focus on vaccinations stemmed partly from watching his ally Donald Trump's defeat in the U.S. presidential election.
"Netanyahu looked very carefully at what happened in the United States and he saw that Trump lost his presidency because of the COVID issue," Hasson told Reuters. "So he thinks it's going to help him, this matter (of vaccines)."
But she said Netanyahu's theme resonated mainly among those who already support him, and "the majority of voters are already decided."
Netanyahu's vaccination push drew praise among Israelis interviewed on a Tel Aviv street, but some said it wasn't enough to persuade them to vote for "Bibi", who has been in power continuously since 2009.
"I think it's time for a change in Israel and we need someone new, despite the great job he did with the vaccinations," said Itay Levy, 21, a software engineer.
Stephen Segal, 32, who owns a coffee business, said there were more important aspects of the coronavirus crisis.
"Did (Netanyahu) handle the economy well? Did he handle the number of infections? I struggled personally during the pandemic - a lot of other people did - and so this is really what's going to determine my vote," he said.
Many secular Israelis accuse Netanyahu of ignoring lockdown violations within the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community - whose political leaders are key partners in his governing coalition - while enforcing restrictions elsewhere.
Israel's vaccine supplies were ensured, Netanyahu said, through numerous phone calls he made to Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla, and an offer to provide the company with real-world data.
His "proven leadership" would ensure additional vaccine supplies, he says.
But on a popular morning drive-time show on Israel's Kan public radio this week, the familiar sound bite drew only exasperation.
"I'm bringing vaccines for all Israeli citizens," Netanyahu began.
"Vaccinations again? Enough," the radio host interjected.
(Additional reporting by Rami Amichay in Tel Aviv; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)