After undergoing emergency surgery to implant a pacemaker, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, 73, appeared via video from a hospital near Tel Aviv. Dressed in a dandy dark suit, he grins and eloquently declares that he feels “great, as you can see.”
But Sunday’s photo session failed to reassure Israelis, who were shocked to learn that their longest serving prime minister had hidden a long-known heart problem. The admission is in stark contrast to the image of a completely healthy, energetic leader that Mr. Netanyahu has worked so hard to reinforce.
A week after fainting, Mr. Netanyahu was urgently fitted with a pacemaker to control his heartbeat. Only then did staff at Sheba Medical Center reveal on Sunday night that Mr Netanyahu had been experiencing a condition that could have caused an irregular heartbeat for years.
Until Sunday, cardiologists had publicly downplayed concerns, saying the prime minister was dehydrated and describing his heartbeat as “completely normal”.
The unexpected revelations about Mr. Netanyahu’s health problems come at the height of mass protests against his controversial plan to limit judicial power, with lawmakers from the ruling coalition voting to pass the first major bill on Monday.
News of a chronic heart problem – delivered in a seemingly favorable way – further fueled anger and distrust at a time of extreme political polarization in Israel.
Yossi Verter, a political writer for the left-wing Israeli daily Haaretz, wrote on Monday: “The workshop of lies surrounding Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hospitalization continues to feel like an episode of a sitcom.” The health crisis, he added, “illustrates more than anything the culture of deception in which Netanyahu, his ministers and advisers run the country.”
Because illness can ruin a ruler’s well-kept invincible appearance, the strongmen around the world often hide their medical history.
But democracies have also misreported the health of their leaders.
Mr. Netanyahu’s close ally, former US President Donald Trump, has provided a very careful account of his own health — never disclosing the full details of his medical history before he became president and limited information about his COVID-19 diagnosis in 2020. He announced his diagnosis by tweet, but his chief of staff, Mark Meadows, recounted that he had tested positive for the virus a few days before, and later recounted that he had tested positive for the virus. public schedules and private meetings – a claim the former president has denied.
When Trump was hospitalized for treatment with an experimental antiviral, his doctor gave him an upbeat view of his health, but minutes later, Meadows told reporters that Trump’s condition was much more serious. Officials involved in his care now say Trump arrives within hours of potentially dying from the virus.
In Israel, the emergency pacemaker surgery marks the latest turning point for Mr. Netanyahu, who is currently facing a series of charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust – a case that has exhausted Israelis with five elections in four years.
Fueling longstanding allegations that Mr. Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, are out of touch with ordinary Israelis, Israeli media reported on Monday that his pacemaker was five times more expensive than a conventional model and was not covered by health insurance, the manufacturer Medtronic cited.
But the most disturbing criticisms are the hospital’s conflicting assessments of Mr Netanyahu’s health and the government’s lack of transparency.
“You can’t claim the public’s trust if you don’t tell the public the big picture, and this is especially important when you’re talking about a leader’s health,” said Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, a policy think tank in Jerusalem.
Netanyahu’s health story began last week, after a hot day on a boat in the Sea of Galilee with his family. On Saturday, July 15, Mr. Netanyahu was admitted to Sheba hospital after feeling mildly dizzy.
The next day, he underwent heart tests, which the prime minister’s office said all was back to normal. Dr Amit Segev, director of the hospital’s cardiology department, said Mr Netanyahu was fitted with a heart rate monitor as a completely routine measure “to continue regular monitoring.”
“His heart is completely normal, without any evidence (to the contrary),” Segev announced that Sunday.
But a full week later, last Saturday, Mr. Netanyahu was taken to the hospital for sudden surgery to receive a pacemaker.
In a video statement, Dr Eyal Nof said that the heart monitor sounded an alarm late Saturday after detecting a condition called heart block. The electrical signals that trigger the heartbeat start at the top of the heart, but during cardiac arrest, they have trouble reaching the pumping chambers of the heart at the bottom. Slow heart rate, skipping beats, and fainting are symptoms. Pacemakers usually control the disorder, but untreated cases can lead to cardiac arrest.
The doctors’ delay in acknowledging Mr. Netanyahu’s condition prompted fierce public criticism. Sheba Medical Center declined to comment on the mixed messages. A person familiar with Mr Netanyahu’s treatment, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said the hospital had followed “strict orders” not to disclose Mr. Netanyahu’s condition last week.
“This is a disaster: The doctors knew about his condition and lied to everyone,” said Eliad Shraga, president of the Movement for Quality Governance in Israel, a civil society group. “If he’s not healthy and fit, he’s probably not fit to run a country in such a crisis.”
Mr Netanyahu has made no comment on his condition other than two upbeat videos released from the hospital in which he claims to feel “great” and ready to do business as usual.
Faced with growing political crises, Netanyahu has carefully crafted the look of an almighty, campaigning with the assertion that he alone is capable of leading the small country. During his 15 years in power, his good health was hardly in doubt. His father, Benzion, died at the age of 102, adding strength to his family’s claims of intense health and vitality.
News of Mr. Netanyahu’s ills could jeopardize his personal credibility, which is so important to his long-term political power, experts say.
“He felt that he was above the law and above nature,” says Altshuler.
Netanyahu sometimes appeared shaky during Monday’s legislative sessions just hours after being released from the hospital, eyes sunken, but he kept going.
Although Israeli government protocol requires prime ministers to release annual medical reports, Mr. Netanyahu has not released any since 2016. That report claimed his lab tests were “absolutely normal” and his overall health was “excellent”, mentioning only that a tumor had been removed from his large intestine. In 2018, Mr. Netanyahu was briefly hospitalized after developing a fever.
Because the protocol is not legally enforceable, Netanyahu has had several other documented health threats. But last October, he was taken to the hospital for a check-up after feeling pain in his chest during his campaign. He went for a run in the park the next morning, a physical exercise for the camera.
Before the vote on the first major legislation to overhaul Israel’s justice system, protesters gathered at the Israeli parliament building. Shraga, an advocate of good governance, had to shout to drown out the shrill “De-mo-cra-tia!” – Hebrew for democracy.
“Without transparency, everything is at risk,” he said.
Associated Press writers Zeke Miller and Lauran Neergaard in Washington contributed to this report.