At 1 am last Sunday, a WhatsApp message was sent to my mobile and to other diplomatic and political reporters in Israel: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will undergo a pacemaker implantation, and during the operation, Justice Minister Yariv Levin will be acting prime minister.
Many in Israel raised an eyebrow: “Wait, a week ago you told us he didn’t feel good because he was dehydrated, and now you are installing a pacemaker?” It wasn’t the first time an Israeli PM’s health status wasn’t exactly made transparent to the public.
Some say the health status of an Israeli prime minister is more secret than the answer to the question of whether Israel has nuclear weapons. The prime ministers, throughout history, have hidden their health condition.
In the ’60s, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol hid the fact that he had a heart attack. His successor, Golda Meir, had kept her cancer secret, which even caused her to quit politics at one point, just to be called to sit in the prime minister’s chair after Eshkol’s death.
In the ’70s and ’80s, Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s advisers hid his mental situation from the public. Some claim he suffered from manic depression.
The right to privacy
“In Israel, unlike other countries such as the United States, it is not required to publish the health status of the leader,” Professor Zeev Rotstein, former director general of Hadassah and Sheba Medical Centers, tells JNS.
“In the US, a president undergoes a periodic checkup from head to toe, including X-rays and MRIs, and even his moles are being checked. And the doctor responsible for this checkup needs to release all the details to the public. Also, every time a problem or illness appears, it must be published, according to law.
“In Israel, there are two rights that affect any medical publication: the public’s right to know, and the right to privacy. In this case, the right to privacy prevails. Therefore, the prime minister has the right to come and say: ‘My health condition is my personal affair.'”
Asaf Shariv, who was the director of media and public affairs for Prime Ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, tells JNS: “If the patient says he doesn’t want the hospital to say anything about his condition, the hospital is bound by the patient’s medical confidentiality. When PM Sharon was hospitalized, our only demand was that we wanted to see the written press releases before the hospital issued them to the media, but the medical briefings were done by the hospital staff and not by the office staff.”
When Shariv speaks about Sharon being hospitalized, he is talking about the first behind the scene peek into the health of a prime minister in the state’s history. On Dec. 18, 2005, at the peak of an election campaign, Sharon was rushed to the hospital because of a stroke.
“I drove like crazy to the hospital,” Shariv tells JNS. “I told the hospital, ‘You can announce that he was hospitalized, but a detailed announcement will be issued only when I get there.’ I remember removing one word from the statement, but from that moment on only medical officials informed the press and the public about his condition.”
Sharon was released from the hospital two days after the stroke, in a step that drew quite a bit of criticism. On Jan. 5, 2006, it was decided that the prime minister would undergo a catheterization, but the night before, he had a stroke, much more severe than the first, from which he never regained consciousness. He died in 2014.
“After the hospitalization, we held a press conference with several doctors who answered journalists’ questions for an hour and a half. Can I tell you I enjoyed the headlines the next morning? No,” says Shariv. “But this is transparency.
“And so the situation here in Netanyahu’s case is problematic. Because all we saw was a doctor reading something from a page in a recorded message, and I know the hospital spokeswoman could do a better job,” he says.
Israeli prime ministers have two doctors; one belongs to the security establishment and the other is chosen by the PM. Other than being a good doctor, Shariv says, there’s one more important quality he needs.
“The doctor who treats him all his life is usually the one chosen for the position of the PM’s private physician. And one of the most important things is that this doctor knows many doctors, and he knows how to arrange what the prime minister needs. If the prime minister is complaining that his leg hurts, the personal doctor knows whom to refer him to, and it will be done discreetly.”
“In the end, people want to see healthy people. But I think if you hide things, there is a great chance that the media and the people will find out. I was the first to announce that an Israeli prime minister would go through a health procedure [Sharon in 2004],” says Shariv. “And today, when every person with a smartphone is a journalist, it’s almost impossible to hide anything.”
Rotstein adds, “A prime minister in principle wants to maintain a façade. For example, the current prime minister places great importance on how he looks, on every strand of hair on his head, and on his makeup, to convey a certain image that says I am healthy and strong and age does not affect me. We saw PM Olmert going out for runs, to show how healthy he is. And unless the legislature changes it, this practice will not change, because the Israeli public likes a strong leader.”
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