"Mister Prime Minister, welcome to the club."
Those were the first words Ehud Olmert's Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas, spoke to him last night after learning of Olmert's prostate cancer.
The 73-year-old Abbas, who called Olmert from Amman, has firsthand experience with prostate cancer. In 1999, he was diagnosed with the same condition, and traveled to the United States for a prostatectomy. He has not suffered major health problems since.
Over the past months, Abbas and Olmert have been in increasingly close contact. They talk more frequently over the telephone and have met at shorter intervals. This close dialogue has helped generate better chemistry. And that has, over the past week, dissolved some of the tensions surrounding the joint declaration the two men are now forming for the Annapolis summit.
Yesterday's phone call, which was mostly a show of empathy, was also a sign on the growing friendship between the two leaders.
After the conversation, Olmert caught a chopper to meet Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi up north, where he was inspecting a military training exercise.
"We were sorry to hear about it, and we wish you a speedy recovery," Ashkenazi told him on a personal note. "Thanks for the support, but it's going to be fine and there's nothing to be worried about," the premier replied.
Olmert, 62, will undergo an operation for the removal of his prostate gland after the Annapolis peace summit, aides to the prime minister said Monday. Olmert announced the impending surgery to the nation at a hastily convened news conference in Jerusalem that day, when he revealed that a cancerous growth had been found on his prostate.
The prime minister stressed that it is not life threatening, and that he intends to continue working as usual until the operation, and will return to work as soon as he recovers following the surgery.
Following the cancer announcement, Olmert's approval rating rose to its highest point since last summer's war in Lebanon.
A Dahaf Research Institute survey taken immediately after Olmert's announcement showed 41 percent of Israelis said Olmert was doing a good job, a six percentage point increase from the previous month. Pollsters surveyed 500 people, and the margin of error was 4.3 percentage points.
Another poll by the TNS Teleseker polling company showed 11 percent of the respondents thought Olmert was the most suitable candidate to serve as prime minister, up from 4.8 percent in June. The leading candidate was Likud Chair Benjamin Netanyahu, who mustered support from 31 percent of those questioned. The survey of 412 people had a margin of error of 4.8 percentage points.
Olmert's public standing had been battered by dissatisfaction with his handling of Israel's war against Hezbollah guerrillas and multiple criminal investigations against him. But his popularity spiked after a recent Israeli airstrike against Syria, and that upward direction continued after Olmert announced he would have to undergo surgery.
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