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Prime Minister Ariel Sharon may have recovered from his minor stroke last week, but his press team is still undergoing shock-therapy.
Monday's bizarre press conference, with no less than four doctors who had treated Sharon, but without any cameras or tape, was an attempt at damage control following the last few days' media farce.
At first, the Sharon spin machine reacted well to his surprise hospitalization. The same night, his advisers were already briefing reporters on the outpouring of public sympathy towards the prime minister. And Sharon himself called the senior correspondents, before the papers went to print, to assure them he was well.
On Tuesday morning, his departure from Jerusalem's Hadassah-University Hospital at Ein Kerem became a national event with all the TV networks broadcasting live his jokes ("I see you've missed me".)
Despite initial worries, it seemed that they were on track and even the polls showed that the public was unfazed by the illness. Kadima even rose in the polls.
The team members heaved a sigh of relief, but then someone went off message.
Sharon had entrusted the media handling in connection with his health to his old friend, advertising tycoon Reuven Adler. Adler had a central part in the makeover six years ago that enabled Sharon to gain power, but this time he made a tactical mistake. He offered the two most influential journalists in the country, Yediot Aharonot's Nahum Barnea and Shimon Shiffer, an exclusive briefing with two of Sharon's personal physicians. Barnea and Shiffer's report appeared in Friday's Yediot under the headline "The medical file," with the clear conclusion that despite his bulk, according to the tests, Sharon is healthy.
The reporters underlined that the briefing was "with the permission of the patient."
Barnea and Shiffer's main competition, Ma'ariv's Ben Kaspit was incensed. He had wind of their exclusive and retaliated with a story of his own; apparently Sharon had been anaesthetized during his treatment and there had been no handing over of responsibility to his deputy Ehud Olmert.
The two papers quickly spiraled into one of their rounds of accusations and counter-accusations. Yediot explained that the procedure Sharon underwent didn't include a general anaesthetic and Ma'ariv trashed Yediot, claiming (correctly) that the details handed to the paper couldn't constitute in any way a real medical report.
The icing on this Hanukka doughnut was the ridiculous argument over Sharon's weight. A mere 110 kilos according to Yediot, while in Ma'ariv he was tipping the scales at a whopping 142. The rest of the press eagerly joined in the fray.
The rest of Sharon's media advisers were enraged at Adler for ruining all last week's hard work. Leaking select stories to the country's largest newspaper is a habit of many government spokesmen, but when it comes to an issue like the PM's health, he should have realized that Ma'ariv and the rest wouldn't take it lying down. They had no choice but to come clean with all the media at a special press-conference.
Suspicious minds might wonder why health reporters (such as The Jerusalem Post's Judy Siegel) were not allowed to attend - only diplomatic and political correspondents - and suggest that Sharon's doctors are hiding something.
The reason is much more prosaic. Sharon's spindoctors are much more used to manipulating the reporters they work with on a daily basis, and even though they probably didn't have that much to hide, they preferred not to have the doctors answer a lot of awkward medical questions.
The fact that most of the media referred to the event as a "revealing of Sharon's medical file" showed that the tactic worked. The reporters weren't shown his file, but only received a more detailed account of last week's incident and information on the heart treatment that Sharon will undergo in a couple of weeks.
But the reporters were satisfied and the normally measured Aluf Ben, Haaretz's diplomatic correspondent, even termed the meeting "an important milestone in the battle for freedom of information."
The polls over the next few days will prove whether Sharon's people have managed to minimize the fallout, but it couldn't have happened at a more precarious point in the campaign - just when Binyamin Netanyahu has challenged Sharon and Amir Peretz to a series of three televised debates.
In the last two elections, Sharon managed to evade debates and still seemed responsible and statesmanlike to the voters. This time, if Netanyahu and Peretz go on and have a debate without him, he might begin to look old and tired next to his two energetic challengers.
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