Israeli doctors reveal Netanyahu's chronic heart problem only after implanting pacemaker

The sudden revelations about Mr. Netanyahu's health troubles came at the height of mass protests against his contentious plan to limit judicial power

July 25, 2023 01:11 pm | Updated 01:47 pm IST - Jerusalem

Protesters stage demonstrations against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his nationalist coalition government’s judicial overhaul, in the lead up to final vote on a law that would limit some Supreme Court power, in Jerusalem July 23, 2023.

Protesters stage demonstrations against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his nationalist coalition government’s judicial overhaul, in the lead up to final vote on a law that would limit some Supreme Court power, in Jerusalem July 23, 2023. | Photo Credit: Reuters

After undergoing emergency surgery to implant a pacemaker, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, 73, made a video appearance from a hospital near Tel Aviv. Wearing a crisp dark suit, he grinned and declared energetically that he felt “great, as you can see.”

But the July 23 photo-op failed to reassure Israelis, who were shocked to learn the same day that their longest-serving prime minister had concealed a long-known heart problem. The admission was a stark contrast to the image of a fully healthy, energetic leader that Mr. Netanyahu has gone to great lengths to bolster.

A week after a fainting spell, Mr. Netanyahu was urgently fitted with a pacemaker to control his heartbeat. Only then did staff at the Sheba Medical Center reveal July 23 night that Mr. Netanyahu has for years experienced a condition that can cause irregular heartbeats.

Until July 23, the cardiologists had publicly played down concerns, saying the Prime Minister was dehydrated and describing his heartbeat as “completely normal.” The sudden revelations about Mr. Netanyahu's health troubles came at the height of mass protests against his contentious plan to limit judicial power, with legislators from the governing coalition voting a first key bill into law on July. 24

Also Read:Explained | Why has Israel paused the judicial reform plan?

The news about a chronic heart problem - offered up in a seemingly backhanded way - stoked further anger and distrust at a time of extreme political polarization in Israel.

Transparency crisis

“The factory of lies surrounding Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's hospitalization continued like an episode of a sitcom,” Yossi Verter, a political writer for Israel's left-leaning daily Haaretz, wrote on July 24. The health crisis, he added, “illustrates more than anything the culture of deceit in which Netanyahu, his ministers and advisers run the country.” Because illnesses can damage a ruler's carefully maintained veneer of invincibility, strongmen around the world often obfuscate their medical history.

But democratic countries, too, have misrepresented the health of their leaders.

Mr. Netanyahu's close ally, former U.S. President Donald Trump, provided a highly sanitized account of his own health - never releasing full details of his medical history before he became president, and limiting information about his COVID-19 diagnosis in 2020. He announced his diagnosis by tweet, but his Chief of Staff, Mark Meadows, later recounted in a book that Mr. Trump tested positive for the virus days before and nevertheless continued with his public schedule and private meetings - a claim the former President has denied.

When Mr. Trump was hospitalized to receive an experimental anti-viral treatment, his doctor provided a rosy view of his health, but just minutes later, Mr. Meadows told reporters that Mr. Trump's condition was far graver. Officials involved with his care now say Mr. Trump came within hours of potentially dying from the virus.

In Israel, the emergency pacemaker surgery marked the latest twist for Mr. Netanyahu, who is currently fighting a litany of bribery, fraud and breach of trust charges - a case that has driven Israelis to exhaustion with five elections in four years.

Fueling longstanding accusations that Mr. Netanyahu and his wife, Ms. Sara, are out of touch with ordinary Israelis, Israeli media reported Monday that his pacemaker cost five times more than a typical model and was not covered by health insurance, citing Medtronic, the manufacturer.

But worrying critics most has been the hospital's contradictory assessments of Mr. Netanyahu's health and a wider lack of government transparency.

“You can't ask for public trust if you don't tell the public the whole picture, and it's especially important when you talk about a leader's medical condition,” said Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem think tank.

Health concerns

Mr. Netanyahu's health saga started last week, after a scorching day spent on a boat in the Sea of Galilee with his family. On Saturday, July 15, Netanyahu was admitted to Sheba hospital after feeling mild dizziness.

The next day, he underwent heart tests, which the Prime Minister's office said had all come back clear. Dr. Amit Segev, the director of the hospitals' cardiology unit, said Mr. Netanyahu was fitted with a heart monitor as a purely routine measure “to continue regular monitoring.” “His heart is completely normal, without any evidence (to the contrary),” Dr. Segev announced that on July 16.

But a full week later, on July 22, Netanyahu was rushed to the hospital for sudden surgery to receive a pacemaker.

In a video statement, Dr. Eyal Nof said that the heart monitor had sounded an alert late on July 22 after detecting a condition called heart block. The electrical signals that trigger a heartbeat begin in the top of the heart, but during heart block they have trouble reaching the heart's pumping chambers at the bottom. Slow heartbeats, skipped beats and fainting are symptoms. A pacemaker usually controls the disorder but untreated cases can lead to cardiac arrest.

The doctors' delayed acknowledgment of Mr. Netanyahu's condition sparked intense 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 brief the media, said the hospital was under “strict orders” not to disclose Mr. Netanyahu's condition last week.

“This is a disaster: The doctors knew about his medical condition and lied to the people,” said Eliad Shraga, Chairman of the Movement for Quality Governance in Israel, a civil society group. "If he is not in fit and proper condition maybe he is not fit to run a nation in such a crisis.” Mr. Netanyahu has not commented on his condition beyond his two upbeat videos released from the hospital, in which he declared feeling “excellent” and ready to carry out business as usual.

In the face of mounting political crises, Mr. Netanyahu has carefully crafted an appearance of omnipotence, campaigning on his insistence that only he is capable of leading the tiny country. During his 15 years in power, his good health has largely gone unquestioned. His father, Benzion, died at the age of 102, lending weight to his family's claims of vigorous health and vitality.

News of Mr. Netanyahu's ailments could jeopardize the personal charisma that has been so critical to his political staying power, experts say.

“He feels that he's above the law and above nature,” said Mr. Altshuler.

Mr. Netanyahu appeared shaky at times during the legislative sessions on July 24 just hours after his release from the hospital, his eyes sunken, but he soldiered on.

Although Israeli government protocol requires that Prime Ministers release annual medical reports, Mr. Netanyahu has not published one since 2016. That report declared his lab tests “completely normal” and his overall health “excellent,” only mentioning that a polyp had been removed from his large intestine. In 2018, Mr. Netanyahu was briefly hospitalized after suffering from a fever.

Because the protocol is legally unenforceable, Mr. Netanyahu has had few other recorded health scares. But last October, he was rushed to a hospital for examination after feeling pains in his chest during his election campaign. He went jogging in a park the next morning, a display of physical fitness made for the cameras.

Ahead of the vote on the first major law to to overhaul Israel's justice system, protesters thronged the Israeli parliament building. Shraga, the good governance advocate, had to shout to be heard over the deafening chants of “De-mo-cra-tia!” - Hebrew for democracy.

“Without transparency, everything is at risk,” he said.

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