A healthy reminder

We're suspended in a very awkward spot somewhere between Olmert's prostate and Bush's Annapolis.

olmert 224.88 (photo credit: GPO)
olmert 224.88
(photo credit: GPO)
The last thing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert needs is advice from me. So I'm offering advice from someone else. Someone far more venerable. Hassidic master Rabbi Simha Bunim of Pshischa (1765-1827) used to say: "Every person should always carry two slips of paper - one in the right pocket and one in the left. On one slip of paper should be written, 'The entire world was created just for me.' On the other piece of paper should be written the words, 'I am but dust and ashes.'" It's one of those quotes that would make a wonderful - albeit long - epitaph. But it is far better to try to live according to its spirit, in another humble opinion of mine that I don't expect Olmert to heed. I don't take the saying literally - the scraps of paper in my pockets are covered with scribbled phone numbers and old shopping lists. But I have a copy of the quote on my office wall, next to a picture of me shaking hands with Jordan's King Hussein, and one copy at home on the refrigerator, near the emergency phone numbers of the doctor and dentist. The rabbi's words sprang to mind, for obvious reasons, following Olmert's October 29 press conference in which he announced he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer but would not let it interfere with his work running the country (or chasing history, as some would have it). "The surgical procedure is planned for the next few months. I will be able to fully carry out my duties before the procedure and as soon as a couple of hours afterward," he told journalists in a statement to the nation, which brought much of the country to a temporary halt despite its "business-as-usual" message. The stock exchange also hiccupped but recovered quicker than you can say "laparoscopy." Anyway, it has survived worse. As indeed has Olmert, from the non-medical point of view. Olmert's popularity ratings momentarily surged. It wasn't a sympathy vote - although you don't wish cancer, even microscopic, on your democratically elected prime minister and even his political rivals wished him a full recovery. Finally, Olmert had done something right, courageously disclosing his medical problem despite there being no legal requirement for such candor - or even a political precedent by previous premiers. THE COUNTRY soon learned just about all there is to know about the disease. It strikes one in 10 Israeli men - and I suspect eight of the remaining nine rushed to Google it following Olmert's statement and the explanations of his physicians. In fact, we probably now know more when it comes to Olmert's medical situation than we do about the state of the nation ahead of the Annapolis summit meeting which is planned for sometime unspecific to deal with unclear issues. Olmert's chances for a full recovery reportedly reach 95 percent. Annapolis's chances for even partial success are probably so small it would take one of Olmert's skilled microsurgeons to find them. Unfortunately, failure at Annapolis could also be lethal. At the same time that Olmert was calling the press conference, Yuval Diskin, head of the Shin Bet was telling the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that failure to make progress at the peace parley could lead to increased violence in the region. Potential - or ostensible - peace partners have periodically made similar warnings (or threats), which is not a very encouraging way to start a rendezvous dedicated to peace. The oh-so-open revelation of Olmert's prostate problem probably performed a public service, alerting men to the signs and dangers, informing them of possible life-saving lifestyle changes and above all removing some of the fear from the word cancer, which many Israelis still refuse to say out loud. Olmert seems to have learned the lesson from the sad case of his predecessor, Ariel Sharon, who was not fully free with information about his first stroke in December 2005, heightening the shock factor of his sudden incapacitation a few weeks later, just ahead of a general election. Had journalists discovered Olmert's condition before the prime minister had mentioned it, what remains of his credibility would have been shot and he would likely have found himself under even greater pressure to resign. Not that news of Olmert's condition grants him immunity. The investigative TV show Uvda ("Fact") did postpone a broadcast concerning the prime minister immediately following the press conference, but it intends to update and screen the program soon. Police investigators and the state comptroller, busy looking into at least four "affairs" surrounding Olmert, are unlikely to ease up out of sympathy, even if they might have winced at the diagnosis. And it is hard to imagine members of the Winograd Committee investigating the circumstances of last summer's war suddenly changing their findings because of Olmert's minutely swollen gland. But something has obviously changed with the announcement. Cynics are already noting that just as the news of the alleged assassination attempt on Olmert by Palestinians was leaked suddenly as the PM made his way to Europe for talks with leaders there last month, so was the timing of the medical press conference not entirely coincidental. As the Post's Herb Keinon put it: "... 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." ONE STILL gets the impression that Olmert's prostate problem might make him wake up in the middle of the night for a visit to the bathroom, but it is not the most serious cloud hanging over his head. This is not the one that stops him from going to sleep in the first place. His health seems less delicate than his political future. (As Ma'ariv commentator Ben Caspit put it rather snidely: "It's a good job the teachers are striking and not the doctors.") So here we are, suspended in a very awkward metaphorical spot somewhere between Olmert's prostate and Bush's Annapolis. All we can do is wish the prime minister a speedy and full recovery. As they say around here, "Ha'ikar habriut" (health is the most important thing). Just as his brave manner in facing the cameras and telling the country of his condition has served as sharp reminder to many to get a medical checkup, it has probably also reminded Olmert that he, too, is mortal. Assuming the Annapolis summit actually does get off the ground, Olmert - and his counterparts - would do well to remember that, however historic their efforts on behalf of world peace, no signed document coming out of the meeting will be more important than those pieces of paper that Rabbi Simha Bunim of Pshischa referred to all those years ago.