The man who guards the biggest secret in Israel is not the head of the Mossad, or the director of the atomic reactor, but Professor Boleslav Goldman, the prime minister's physician.
Only he knows what is written in the 77-year-old Ariel Sharon's medical file. Is Sharon as healthy as one of the calves on his ranch, or does he suffer from problems characteristic of his age? Do the data portend many alert, healthy years to come and a capacity to lead his country?
To dispel any doubt, the writer's questions are not intended to suggest that the prime minister is suffering from any illness or problem of any sort. Sharon occasionally comes down with hoarseness, making it hard for him to talk, and he has at times canceled meetings due to a cold. Last year, Sharon's office announced that he had successfully undergone an operation to remove kidney stones. He is clearly overweight, and limps as the result of a wound he suffered in the War of Independence. None of this should in any way limit his ability to direct the affairs of state and make decisions.
Nevertheless, there is good reason and justification to inquire into the state of health of Israel's oldest-ever prime minister, who has declared his intention of running again and remaining in office until 2010 - at which time he will be the current age of his vice premier, Shimon Peres. Sharon assures us that only then will he retire, to ride horses on the Sycamore Ranch ("I pity the poor horse," commented one associate, who was reassured by Omri Sharon, "Our thoroughbreds are strong.")
Sharon has a set answer for questions about his health. He cites his family genes - he has an aunt who lived to a ripe old age; he jokes with his young rivals - "If I released my medical records, the other candidates would have to worry"; or he simply evades the question. In his most recent holiday-time interview, he asked aide Assi Shariv "to look into how we could publicize it." That has not yet been done. Officials in the Prime Minister's Office argue that his predecessors did not reveal their medical files, either. True enough, but norms have changed since the days of the undisclosed diseases of Levi Eshkol and Golda Meir.
It is now standard practice for the public to be entitled to know and to oversee its elected officials more than was the case in the Mapai era. Besides which, all 10 previous prime ministers completed their terms of office at younger ages than Sharon is now. And that includes the "Old Man" - Ben-Gurion - and Meir and Yitzhak Shamir.
There is an ongoing argument in the U.S. about the proper balance between the right of politicians to privacy and the right of the public to be aware of their state of health. Presidential candidates are accustomed to at least partially disclosing their medical records. John Kerry was accused of leaving out information from the period of his military service. Bob Dole, an older candidate, released a medical summary by his doctors (this was before he took part in the Viagra test group). Each year, President George Bush releases the results of his annual checkup, but this is no big deal: He is young in comparison with Israeli leaders and, unlike them, is a physical fitness enthusiast.
Results of the elections and polls indicate that in contradistinction to the West, Israelis prefer their leaders aged and experienced, and scorn younger men. Yitzhak Rabin (in his first term), Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak were considered failures, and the wizened, gray-haired set were popular. Perhaps this explains why Sharon's health is not a matter for public conversation, with the exception of a pathetic and unnecessary attempt by the Barak campaign to ascribe certain diseases to him in the 2001 elections.
Still, the question remains, and it will continue to hover in the air as the next election draws closer. The time has come for suitable disclosure of the state of health of leaders and candidates in Israel. And until the rules are formalized, it would be only right for Sharon and his doctors to tell the public - in detail - just how he feels.
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