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A National Danger

History did not wait for the Israeli civil war to break out, and it did not hold its breath until the end of Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption trial, or the end of his coup from above, the so-called judicial reform and the court decisions on the petitions against it. On October 7, 2023 the second shoe dropped. Now, Israel faces an actual risk of collapse. We are no longer fighting for the democratic nature of our state, for its system of government, but for its very existence.

This war cannot be led by Netanyahu. It cannot be led by the man whose spirit and persona embody all that is decayed and morbid in current day Israel. He has no place on the command bridge. Not only for his culpability, now plain for all to see, in the rise of Hamas and the collapse of the IDF and most other government institutions. This war, for the continued existence of Israel cannot be led by Netanyahu because he will actively sabotage it.

Israelis, right or left, must finally understand that Netanyahu is not on their side. While not a “traitor” in the classic, legal, sense, Netanyahu is a chronic double-crosser in the metaphysical and mental sense of the word.

I have been listening to Netanyahu’s speeches for decades, paying attention to his use of language and his handling of facts and people. A few years ago, in an article titled “Delving into the psychological aspect of the Netanyahu Phenomenon” (“Haaretz”, November 11, 2016), I wrote about the Israeli Prime Minister’s perverse attitude towards the truth. At the time, I could not imagine the extent of the disaster towards which Israel was inching with Netanyahu at the helm.

Over the past year, many of my colleagues in the fields of clinical psychology and psychiatry have debated whether it was appropriate and ethical to speak publicly about Netanyahu’s mental state, whether it be a temporary mental incompetence, a personality disorder, or even a manifestation of an illness.

My position was that it was not the place of psychiatric evaluation to warn the public about a politician. The question of the competence of a democratically elected prime minister should be decided by public opinion and elected officials. History, after all, shows no lack of examples of uninhibited and mentally abnormal people who led their people to great successes. Now, however, the situation has changed.

The treacherous mental element in Netanyahu’s personality, embodied in his hatred of the truth, is a national danger. A leader who holds such hatred for the truth cannot lead a nation to victory in war, only to further destruction. This has become apparent after Netanyahu’s highly irregular “special statement” last Friday night, were he patted himself on the back for having spoken to two families whose worlds were shattered – rather than privately and quietly contacting the families of prisoners and abductees, as the President of the United States did. Anyone who deceives a panicked nation with a “special statement” on the eve of the Shabbat, anyone who uses a shard of truth to lie to a heartbroken nation should not stay in the Prime Minister’s office for another minute.

Last night, as fierce combats between IDF soldiers and Hamas militia were taking place, the Israeli head of state publicly blamed Israel’s security chiefs for the October 7 catastrophe. To win the war, one must recognize the difference between reality and wishful thinking, and between truth and lies. As already mentioned, Netanyahu’s relationship to the truth has always been murky.

Those who view him as a Machiavellian, motivated solely by political interests, overlook his deep need to avoid the truth even if it would do him no harm and its suppression would not give him any political advantage. One year he claims that the Mufti of Jerusalem gave Hitler the idea for annihilating European Jewry, and the next he declares that clearing Jewish settlements amounts to “ethnic cleansing”. What these two statements, and his suggestion that the criticism leveled at him from the pages of Haaretz had to do with the Nazi past of a former German shareholder, have in common is not that they “avoid the truth”, but that they undermine truth as an agreed upon human value.

In recent years, Netanyahu has seemed to do away with truths and facts of all kinds. This could be seen in the type of legal representation he chose for his personal court cases and the arguments made by the lawyers who represented him in the petitions currently being discussed in the Supreme Court, as well as in his refusal, since the beginning of the so-called judicial reform, to meet state officials who intended to warn him of the dangers to the country lurking down the path of his judicial overhaul. It is evident also in his refusal to be interviewed by media and journalists seeking the truth and in his obsessive preoccupation with his own self-image and that of his family, reflected in the busy Photoshop industry surrounding him and his wife. There has never been a prime minister in Israel with such disdain for truth telling. Netanyahu surrounds himself only with hypocrites and publicists who are willing to cooperate with every abomination and spread every message, every spin and every bluff with which he fights the truth – any truth, even if it poses no threat to him personally.

Now may not be the time for psychological evaluations and “wild psychoanalysis”, and I will not pretend to diagnose here someone I have never met. And yet: Netanyahu’s attitude to the truth cannot be compared to that of an unpleasant, but fairly common, thick-skinned narcissistic politician, or even an anti-social character disorder, nor with a political need for survival, but rather with a kind of perversion or addiction. Under the extreme circumstances that have now arisen, this morbid need to disavow reality at any cost makes him unfit to lead the country. It is not impossible that he himself may have had the feeling that he was not cut out for a sober confrontation with the reality of war and therefore tried to insulate himself from it in recent years.

“The first casualty when war comes is the truth,” said Republican senator Hiram Johnson—far from an endorsement of having liars in leadership positions during wartime. As Israel is entering the most complex war in its history, It is led by a prime minister who has elevated the ability to lie above all political and human values.

In the 19th century, Hungarian doctor Ignaz Semmelweis set out to reduce the catastrophic death rate of new mothers in Viennese hospitals – reaching 90 percent in some! He found that the reason was poor hygiene practices – medical students often assisted in the delivery room or went into the neonatal unit without taking proper hygiene measures, even after taking part in autopsies. Semmelweis’ discovered a simple scientific truth. Yet, he had to fight, for many years, for it to be accepted. His simple suggestion, that students and doctors attending deliveries disinfect their hands before entering the delivery room, sparked widespread opposition from his colleagues. Despite all the data and research supporting Semmelweis’ hypothesis, many years had to pass before his discovery was accepted. Apparently, the idea that a simple precaution could increase a woman’s chances of surviving  childbirth was a fact of life that doctors found unbearable. People have a contradictory relationship with the truth when it is accompanied by a painful realization about themselves.

We must not allow such group dynamics to develop in times of war. We must put into action what we already know: the 16 years under Netanyahu’s deceit almost led Israel to ruin. Today, we would never allow a physician handle a delivery with unclean hands. Why would we allow the same charlatan who brought us up to this point to handle the current national crisis?

About the Author
Eran J. Rolnik, MD, PhD is a training and supervising analyst at the Israel Psychoanalytic Society and the International Psychoanalytic Association, psychiatrist and historian (member of the IPA History Committee). He is on the Faculty of the Max Eitingon Institute for Psychoanalysis and Tel-Aviv University School for advanced Studies of Psychotherapy at the Medical Faculty of Tel-Aviv University. He published over 70 journal papers, 3 monographs and has edited and translated 7 books. His book on the migration of psychoanalysis from central Europe to Jewish Palestine/Israel in the inter-war era has been published in Hebrew, English, German and French. In 2019 he published an annotated edition of Freud letters to 70 different interlocuters. His recent book “Talking Cure – 13 Talks on Psychoanalysis” published in Hebrew and in German concerns the theory and technique of psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic psychotherapy. He works in private practice in Tel-Aviv.
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