Is Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu healthy? - opinion

Downplaying or covering up ill health is nothing new. Those in positions of power, such as political leaders, business leaders, and heads of industry, have been doing it since time immemorial.

 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a speech with the visage of Golda Meir in the background.) (photo credit: NOAM REVKIN FENTON/FLASH90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a speech with the visage of Golda Meir in the background.)
(photo credit: NOAM REVKIN FENTON/FLASH90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s health has been the subject of intense scrutiny over the last couple of weeks. Such is the furor surrounding his hospital admissions and condition, that they’ve garnered almost as much media coverage as the protests against the government’s proposed judicial reform.

Some say it’s a ploy on Netanyahu’s part to divert attention from the political turmoil this country is facing, the blame for which a large majority lays firmly at his door. 

Others believe that he’s covering up the full extent of his health problems so as not to appear weak.

Downplaying or covering up ill health is nothing new, however. Those in positions of power, such as political leaders, business leaders, and heads of industry, have been doing it since time immemorial so that they don’t appear weak or upset the status quo.

This phenomenon is particularly prevalent among world leaders and heads of state, where it’s more than just them, their families, and friends who are affected by their ill health. Instability caused by a leader’s poor health can be very damaging to the country as a whole, which often leads to the “establishment” closing ranks in order to limit the flow of information to the wider public.


How have Israel's prime ministers dealt with illness and their public image?

Israel is no exception in this regard. If indeed Netanyahu and his cohorts aren’t being entirely honest and transparent as far as his health is concerned, he won’t be the first leader of this country to have manipulated the public in this way.

Indeed, a number of his predecessors are known to have done this in the past when faced with their own health problems. 

Israel’s third prime minister, Levi Eshkol, is one such leader, who set the precedent for others who followed. 

Eshkol was in office at the time of the June 1967 Six Day War. The following year, although his health had already begun to deteriorate, he continued in power, and in early February he suffered a heart attack. Rather than taking this as a warning sign, he plowed on with his prime ministerial duties until, later that month, in the early hours of February 26, he suffered a fatal heart attack and died in office at age 73. 

Another leader who kept her ill health under wraps was Golda Meir. She was diagnosed with lymphoma in 1965, at the age of 67, two years before she took up her post as Israel’s first female prime minister. So keen was she to hide her condition from the public, that she was treated at Hadassah Hospital in the dead of night. 

Yitzhak Rabin, who served under Eshkol as army chief of staff from 1964-1968, oversaw Israel’s victory in the Six Day War. In the lead-up to the war, however, he suffered what was then referred to as a nervous breakdown.

“He was incapacitated to the point of incoherence by the unbearable tension of waiting with the life of his country in the balance, knowing that waiting too long would allow the armies of 100 million Arabs to strike first his country of three million” (“Prelude to the Six Days,” The Washington Post). 

Rabin recovered in time to lead Israel to victory and later become Israel’s fifth prime minister. In his case, the gamble paid off, as he and the country emerged victorious. 

THINGS WERE very different for Menachem Begin, however, who succeeded Rabin. Begin fell into a severe depression following the death of his wife, Aliza, in November 1982 while he was away on official business. His illness was aggravated by the Lebanon War in that same year, during which 120 IDF soldiers were killed. 

His poor health plagued him throughout the following year, when he was hospitalized on several occasions. In October 1983, it all became too much and he resigned, saying, “I cannot go on any longer.”

More recently, Ariel Sharon, who served as prime minister in his 70s (he was 73 when he was sworn in, the same age as Netanyahu is now), suffered a minor stroke in December 2005 while in office. Although he required hospitalization and surgery for a heart defect, Sharon downplayed the severity of his condition and immediately returned to work, against doctors’ orders. He subsequently suffered a massive stroke on January 4, 2006, and slipped into a coma, from which he never awoke. He died eight years later, on January 11, 2014. 

One prime minister who defied convention by fronting up his illness to the public was Ehud Olmert. In October 2007, some 18 months into his leadership, Olmert announced that he had early-stage prostate cancer. Having explained his diagnosis in detail in an announcement, he went on to reassure the public: “I will be able to fully fulfill my duties, both before the treatment and several hours after it,” he said. “My doctors, with whom you may speak shortly, have informed me that I will recover fully and that the growth which was discovered is not life-threatening and will not harm my ability to function or fulfill the mission with which I have been entrusted. Therefore, I intend to continue working and dedicating myself to matters of state.”

For him, unlike many of his predecessors, openness and transparency were paramount: “Despite not being legally obligated to report to the public regarding my health status, I wanted to bring this information to the public openly and fully on my own initiative soon after receiving the medical opinion. The citizens of Israel have the right to know, and I feel that I have an obligation to the public to inform them in this regard.”

Although Olmert later resigned over numerous corruption allegations, his decision to come clean about his health problems made a refreshing change from the veil of secrecy that so often goes hand in hand with such matters. It also highlighted the disease of prostate cancer, which afflicts around 1.2 million men a year, killing 350,000 annually.

In today’s world, where the Internet has enabled the instantaneous spread of information and the keeping of secrets nigh on impossible, the movers and shakers would be hard-pressed to play their cards close to their chests. Some might think there’s no point in even trying, preferring instead to share small, controlled, bite-size pieces of information in order to satisfy the public’s need for detail, while limiting any damage it may cause. 

It is this approach that I believe Netanyahu has adopted. Let’s face it, considering the large amount of vitriol directed toward him by a vast number of Israelis – regardless of the amount of information he shares about his health – there will always be a significant majority who refuse to believe a word that comes out of his mouth. 