By HERB KEINON, AP
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon chaired the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on Sunday and engaged in some self-deprecating humor, a week after suffering a mild stroke that has focused media attention on his health and weight.
A smiling Sharon opened the meeting by wishing his ministers, their families and "all the citizens of Israel" a happy holiday. "I hope that you will eat doughnuts and latkes," Sharon said. "You have permission to eat them, but I recommend that you don't overdo it."
Sharon's comments, which elicited laughter among the ministers, came a day before his doctors were scheduled to give a special briefing to the press and present Sharon's medical records. This would mark the first time that the health of Sharon, or any serving prime minister, would be discussed so openly.
This briefing comes amid rumors that while in overall good health, Sharon may need to undergo a heart procedure in the near future. The briefing is also seen as an attempt to keep Sharon's health from becoming a major issue in the election campaign.
Channel 10 news reported Sunday night that Sharon would undergo catheterization of the coronary arteries prior to the Knesset elections on March 28. It provided no further details.
Doctors also discovered last week that Sharon suffers from a slight heart defect, which he has apparently had since birth.
After last week's stroke, doctors urged Sharon, 77, to go on a diet.
Sharon's doctors have called a press conference on Monday in which they are to present a complete medical report of the prime minister's condition, and detail their plan for further medical treatment.
Estimates of the rotund, 170-cm. tall premier's weight have varied widely in the media, from 117 to 142 kilograms.
Yediot Aharonot reported last week that Sharon would soon have to be hospitalized again. The paper published a report on Sharon's medical file, which indicated that while his general state of health was comparatively good for a 77-year-old man, he suffers from a number of health problems, the most serious of which is excess weight.
Many Israelis assume they'll gain some weight over the course of the festival, when children are off school, families get together and - in the rainy days of winter - there is little else to do other than sit around and eat the latkes and doughnuts.
Theologically, Hanukka is a minor festival on the Jewish calendar, but it has grown to prominence because of its proximity to Christmas. This year the first night of the holiday coincides with Christmas Day, a rare coincidence of the two calendars - the first time it has happened since 1959.
The practice of gift-giving carried over into Hanukka because of the Christmas precedent, though the Jewish holiday precedes the Christian one.
Hanukka recalls the victory against all odds of the small Maccabean army against the Syrian King Antiochus in 165 BCE. The eight-day length of the festival is a result of a fable that when the Jews rededicated the Temple in Jerusalem, which had been desecrated by the invaders, a single vial of oil, enough for one day, burned miraculously for eight.
The fable, though it is not included in accounts of the struggle, has become one of the main trademarks of Hanukka, which means "dedication" in Hebrew. The holiday is also known as the "Festival of Lights."