Opinion |

Netanyahu Is Sane, but the Israeli Public Isn't

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset, in May.
Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset, in May.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Benjamin Netanyahu is not mentally ill, crazy or in need of psychiatric hospitalization. He knows full well the difference between good and evil, legal and illegal, permitted and forbidden.

Judging by the evidence disclosed to date in his corruption trial, it seems clear that his alleged offenses – including the illegal receipt of gifts worth thousands of dollars; an effort to obtain sympathetic media coverage in exchange for regulatory favors and an attempt to reach a quid pro quo arrangement with Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes – were committed soberly, with a clear head, after careful planning and while focused on a completely rational goal.

The court will decide whether these acts were indeed crimes. But nowhere has it ever been argued that he committed them in a moment of confusion, while suffering from temporary insanity or under the influence of psychedelic drugs. If the alleged shouting of his wife, Sara, and bizarre behavior of his son Yair influenced or even dictated his actions as prime minister, then he actually deserves praise.

It’s well known that wives and children can drive a man crazy, yet under this extreme distress, which lasted for many years, Netanyahu demonstrated an exceptional ability to win widespread public support – not as a victim deserving of compassion, but as a leader “in a different league,” as he once boasted in campaign ads. We have to wonder whether a person’s ability to weigh his steps with wisdom and composure deliberation and intelligence even while under a hysterical attack in his own home suggests that there’s something wrong with him. But that’s a clinical question that is off-topic.

The only important issue at stake in Netanyahu’s libel suit is whether Ehud Olmert’s statement – "What can’t be fixed is the mental illness of the prime minister and his wife and son. That’s not fixable” – is true, and based in fact, or if it damages Netanyahu’s reputation. If it’s the latter, then he is entitled to compensation.

And this is where the enormous damage of Netanyahu’s libel suit against Olmert lies. Because regardless of whether Olmert’s unprofessional diagnosis is ruled false or proven true, it should not be considered libel. Why? Because unlike taking bribes and committing fraud or embezzlement, mental illness should not disgrace those who suffer from it, nor should we permit in which mental illness is judged as if it were a crime involving moral turpitude.

It’s true that according to the Law of Defamation, defamation is defined as anything whose publication is liable to “humiliate a person because of his race, origin, religion, place of residence, age, sex, sexual orientation or disabilities.” “Disabilities” are defined as “physical, emotional or mental impairment, including cognitive impairment, whether permanent or temporary.” But according to the law, describing someone as crazy, not right in the head, delusional or even simply stupid is also libelous.

If the court nevertheless decides that Netanyahu’s good name was harmed because Olmert baselessly defamed him as mentally ill, it will then have to address the definition of Netanyahu’s “good name.” Netanyahu has been charged with crimes that, if he is convicted of them, might well lead the court to rule that his acts involved moral turpitude (a ruling that would automatically bar him from running for political office for the next seven years). In other words, his good name was destroyed even before the verdict has been handed down.

Moreover, Netanyahu himself has publicly complained at every opportunity that the media, the opposition, the prosecution, the leftists and basically everyone else is smearing his reputation. The obvious conclusion is that Olmert’s statements are just another layer piled on a name that has already been besmirched, denigrated and humiliated.

Despite all this, he never launched a legal war against those who smeared him; he even seemed to accept the insults with understanding. More important, despite the shame and the insult, Netanyahu continued to function as prime minister, and all the while he himself chose to humiliate, curse and insult his rivals. Yet now, he’s even enjoying sweeping support in public opinion polls.

Evidently, being defamed only benefits Netanyahu. And that’s something that truly does merit psychiatric observation – not of Netanyahu, but of the Israeli public.

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