JERUSALEM (JTA) – Ehud Olmert’s surprise announcement that he has early-stage prostate cancer is being seen in Israel as more than merely a medical disclosure.
It appears also to be a gesture to head off another Israeli leadership crisis.
The 62-year-old prime minister, revealing his disease at a news conference Monday, was quick to reassure Israelis he would remain in office.
Following a routine checkup, Olmert said, “the first signs of a cancerous growth were discovered in the prostate gland,” requiring minor surgery in the coming months. He said there would be no radiation treatment or chemotherapy.
“I will be fit and fully up to my duties before the procedure and within a few hours after it,” Olmert said.
Israelis are still fresh from the experience of Olmert’s predecessor, Ariel Sharon, whose tenure in office ended abruptly after Sharon was crippled by a stroke in January 2006.
Many Israelis were furious to learn after the stroke that Sharon’s doctors may have mishandled his treatment following a more minor stroke partly as a result of pressure by Sharon to downplay the seriousness of his medical condition.
As a result, experts said, Sharon and his doctors made decisions that may have contributed to the prime minister’s debilitating event.
“There is no doubt that what happened with Sharon is overshadowing this episode,” said Israeli political analyst and television reporter Raviv Drucker.
The picture of Olmert, an avid soccer fan who went jogging in London’s Hyde Park during a recent official visit to Britain, is a far cry from that of the older and morbidly obese Sharon.
Yet Olmert acknowledged the concern.
“Though I am under no legal obligation to give a public accounting on my state of health, I want to make a full and candid representation,” he said. “The Israeli public has a right to know.”
The prime minister cannot afford to lose any more of the public’s trust, having led a costly war last year against the Lebanon-based Hezbollah and now just weeks away from a planned U.S. peace conference with the Palestinians whose prospects are unclear.
Olmert is also under police investigation for several long-running corruption cases in which he has denied any wrongdoing.
His doctors, who appeared beside Olmert at the news conference, said there was no reason for the prime minister not to attend the conference with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, which is supposed to be held in a few weeks in Annapolis, Md.
Dr. Kobi Ramon said Olmert’s medical symptoms indicate he has a 100 percent chance of surviving his prostate condition over the next decade and a 95 percent chance of making a full recovery.
“This is a curable disease with no need for urgent treatment,” Ramon said.
Saeb Erekat, a senior Abbas aide, told Reuters, “We wish him a speedy recovery and hope to continue working with him to achieve the two-state solution and end the Israeli occupation.”
Should Olmert’s surgery, when it happens, render him temporarily unable to work, his stand-in would be Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.
The dramatic announcement on Olmert’s condition drew sympathy from across the Israeli political spectrum. Even Olmert’s fiercest critics in the Knesset praised his sense of transparency.
“We have our differences, but on such a human issue we are unified,” said opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu.
Aryeh Eldad, a retired doctor who now serves as an opposition lawmaker, said he wants Olmert to resign – not because of his prostate but his policies.
“This not a condition that we should expect to disrupt his performance, though it can be aggravated by stress,” Eldad said.
Olmert signaled his eagerness to get back to business.
“My thanks to all those who have called and wished me well. It’s very touching,” he said at a meeting of his Kadima faction. “Now let’s move on to our regular agenda.”