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(photo credit: GPO)
Israeli prime ministers have called numerous press conferences over the years. They have used them to fire ministers and hire others, to declare war and pronounce peace. They have never used them, however, to announce the discovery of a microscopic growth on the prostate.
That Prime Minister Ehud Olmert did make such an announcement at a dramatic, hastily called press conference Monday shows the changes in the country's political culture brought about by the successive strokes and incapacitation of his predecessor, Ariel Sharon.
It also shows that Olmert learned from his own previous experience. The Prime Minister's Office was grilled in the press in January for not releasing information that Olmert underwent a 40-minute procedure to lift his eyelids. That procedure was done under a local anesthetic, and he was conscious throughout.
Olmert could not now allow another situation where his health condition would be grist for the rumor mill, as it was at the time.
"Even though I have no legal obligation to brief the public on my health situation, I wanted to make a full revelation to the public at my own initiative, and close to my receiving the doctors' opinions," Olmert said. "The citizens of Israel have the right to know, and I feel a public obligation to provide information on this matter."
Journalists, because of what happened to Sharon, would have doggedly pursued any scrap of information about Olmert's health - information that inevitably would have leaked out - and would have thought, broadcast and written the absolute worst. Already on Monday night, before the press conference, the Prime Minister's Office was fielding reporters' questions about a skin rash.
Olmert preempted. By coming clean now, the prime minister disarmed rivals who - had information of his health come out in a less controlled manner - conceivably could have used that information to say he was no longer physically able to deal with the unrelenting demands and pressures of leading this country.
Had he not given a full revelation, then rumors would have spread, and a tiny growth on his prostate would have morphed into something much larger and more serious in the media.
Olmert's message to the public was clear: "Yes, something was discovered, but it is not grave and I am able, as my doctors will attest, to continue carrying out my duties."
But the importance of his revelation was not only for the domestic audience. On the way to Annapolis, it was important for Olmert to serve notice to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, to the US Administration and to the Arab leaders, who may or may not attend the meeting, that he was not facing a life-threatening situation.
This is especially true with regard to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries that feel they would be taking a calculated domestic risk by showing up at Annapolis - if indeed they do show up - and giving tacit legitimacy to Israel. They obviously want to know who Israel's leader is, and rumors of an ill Olmert could very well impact on their immediate diplomatic policies.
Earlier this year, following the release of the Winograd Committee's extremely critical interim report about the government's performance during the Second Lebanon War, all diplomatic activity pretty much stopped as the Palestinians, the Arab world and the US waited to see whether Olmert would survive politically. They wanted to see whether their Israeli partner would in a couple of months be Olmert or, perhaps, Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu, a situation that would necessitate a completely different set of assumptions on their part.
Or, as one Israeli diplomatic official indelicately put it at the time, the Arab countries wanted to make sure they would not be getting into bed with Olmert at night, but waking up with Netanyahu in the morning.
Olmert's announcement about his health was meant to reassure the neighbors, and not only put to rest concerns about his well-being inside Israel.