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In his last year as prime minister, during which he spearheaded the disengagement from the Gaza Strip and the "big bang" on the political map, Ariel Sharon showed increasing signs of physical deterioration. He had difficulty walking, tired quickly and told his close associates that his vitality was no longer as it used to be. His aides tried to make things easier for him, to spare him physical effort and to keep his schedule light so that he would be able to rest.

At events to which Sharon was invited the distances were carefully measured so that he would have to walk as little as possible. On his last trip abroad, to the United Nations General Assembly in September, 2005, his people counted the steps between the conference rooms where he met with world leaders and made sure that he would not have to climb stairs. When he dined at the residence of the British ambassador, Simon McDonald, Sharon had to walk 64 meters, as measured by the bodyguards, and arrived panting and out of breath.

On Sundays, before cabinet meetings, the prime minister and other ministers pass in front of a battery of photographers. During his first years as prime minister, Sharon would ascend the staircase from his bureau to the meeting room and cross the corridor with confident steps and a determined expression. During his last year, he was brought up to the meetings in a small elevator, and the short walk in front of the cameras became an increasing challenge.

"The decline wasn't obvious in the big decisions," says a senior official who participated in many discussions with Sharon. "His wit, his humor, his conviction and his determination remained until the last meeting that he conducted, which dealt with the village of Maghar, on the day he collapsed. And he was a good politician - he knew where to use harmless deception and how to fudge things, when a meeting

was important and whether he could relate anecdotes for an hour and a half. But toward the end, he went into less detail and stuck much closer to the points and the summaries that had been written for him. In the beginning I never saw him fall asleep at meetings, and at the end I did. And the difficulty in walking increased, and this was obvious."

Former Knesset Foreign Relations and Defense Committee chairman Likud MK Yuval Steinitz was the only one who spoke publicly about Sharon's decline. In an interview with Haaretz's Ari Shavit last April, Steinitz related that during Sharon's last nine months as prime minister, "there was a marked change. It didn't reach a situation of disability, but Sharon needed his aides and his papers and texts that were prepared for him in advance. It hadn't been that way before. There was an obvious decline in his functioning." Prior to that, said Steinitz, Sharon's appearances in his committee "had been virtuoso."

Unquestioned leadership

The information concerning Sharon's physical difficulties was concealed from the media and the public. Only after he sank into a coma, exactly one year ago, did the details begin to trickle out in conversations with people who worked with him closely and participated in meetings that he ran. This was not an attempt to identify in retrospect early signs of his collapse. It emerges that his aides were aware of his problems and discussed this among themselves even while he was serving as prime minister. They do not deny the details - the tiredness, the difficulty in walking and breathing, the increasing need for prepared notes and summaries of meetings. But according to them, his intellectual prowess was not affected, nor was his ability to make decisions and lead. No one questioned his leadership and his total control of the country up until his last minute as prime minister. There is also no knowledge of warning signs that could have predicted the stroke he suffered on December 18, 2005, two weeks before he finally collapsed from a cerebral hemorrhage, when his term as prime minister ended suddenly.

Sharon's case has shown that the health of national leaders is not just a personal matter, but rather the concern of the entire public. There is no doubt that his departure was a political and historical turning point. However, insofar as is known, he did not suffer from a "leaders' disease" that was concealed from the citizens of Israel. He did not undergo any medical treatment in secret nor did he suffer from cancer and heart ailments like Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir and Menachem Begin.

His personal physicians, Dr. Shlomo Segev and Prof. Bolek Goldman, risked their professional prestige when they declared that "Sharon is healthy" in an interview to the mass-circulation daily Yedioth Ahronoth just a few days before he collapsed. According to them, their periodic checkups did not show anything unusual, apart from excess weight. They were not asked about the physical difficulties that were causing concern in Sharon's immediate environment, and they did not speak about them. They also minimized his limp and the lameness in one leg. The blood-vessel disorder in Sharon's brain was discovered only after he was hospitalized.

Nor was Sharon himself worried about his health. On the contrary: According to all evidence, he believed that he would live to a ripe old age like his grandmother and his aunt, about whom he would speak a lot. He had no doubt that he would be elected for another four-year term and afterward retire to his ranch "to ride the horses." A close aide says that Sharon considered serving for another two years and then finding someone he could trust as his replacement. Perhaps Tzipi Livni (now foreign minister), whom he brought quite close toward the end of his term and whom he helped advance up the ladder of ministerial roles.

"We thought that we had to make things easier for him, because we wanted to protect him," relates the aide. "We all have a father or a grandfather his age. We wanted him to deal only with the major issues, and not to go to superfluous and stupid events and to be at home more. So he could rest. But not because of health problems. He had more colds and lost his voice, but he didn't have health problems. And he didn't want people to make things easier for him."

During the period that preceded the disengagement, Sharon canceled most outings from his bureau and infrequently participated in events. The explanation that was given to the media had to do with security: The bodyguards feared that people from the right who opposed the evacuation of the settlements would try to harm the prime minister. His aides say that this was indeed the reason he shut himself up in the bureau - and not the state of his health or his physical fatigue. At that time Sharon also asked to cut back his schedule.

Problematic circumstances

One aide insists to this day that Sharon's collapse was a tragedy of problematic coincidences. The first stroke affected him in his office, before he set out for home, to Sycamore Ranch. Had he suffered it at night, in his home, the blood clot would have dissolved and no one would have noticed anything. There would have been no invasive examinations, the doctors would not have discovered the hole in his heart and would not have scheduled a catheterization and injected him with blood thinners, which caused the second, serious stroke. Had it not been for this chain of events, perhaps Sharon could have lead the country to this day.

This aide relates that during the last year, he suffered from sharp pains in one of his legs, in which he had been wounded in the battle for Latrun in 1948. His limp worsened and he panted a lot. When he came to work he would sit down in the chair in his bureau; he did not wander among the rooms like his successor, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. But, "particularly on the trip to the UN, Sharon walked more than on other trips, and they always measured his steps for him."

The aide says that in meetings and discussions as well, Sharon would fall asleep a lot less than other ministers, and his tiredness stemmed from problems in falling asleep at night. "There's no doubt that he was five years older than he was on the day he was elected, but not for a moment did I think that we were hiding the truth about the state of his health or, alternatively, that a thing like that would happen," he sums up.

According to the same source, the period when Sharon worried him was after his victory in the 2003 elections. "He was in a kind of downer, not clinical depression. He was moody, as though he had won the elections and now there wasn't anything new, and he was bored with the job. We said that he was really in a depression, and at that stage he started sleeping more and more at the ranch and we stopped the afternoon nap in Jerusalem."

During his first term, Sharon would rest in the afternoon at his official residence in the Rehavia neighborhood and sleep there several times a week. In his second term, his agenda went on without a break until the evening and then he would leave for Sycamore Ranch. Sharon emerged from the crisis and found a new direction only at the end of 2003, when he decided to withdraw from the Gaza Strip.

In retrospect, it is clear that the medical statistics were working against Sharon. He was the most elderly prime minister in the history of Israel, even more so than "the Old Man" - David Ben-Gurion. His excess weight was also obvious. Were his belief in his own longevity and his close circle's insistence on protecting him and expecting him to be able to serve for several more years mere wishes or reasonable expectations in the circumstances? It is a fact, say his aides, that he is continuing to live even in the hospital, a year after a serious stroke and complex brain surgery.

The people close to Sharon knew that the state of his health was a charged political issue that was liable to work to his detriment him in contending with younger politicians, such as Benjamin Netanyahu. In the 2001 election race, Ehud Barak's campaign headquarters made a failed attempt to bring up "Arik's illnesses" for media discussion, but the story did not catch on in the absence of any real evidence. In the 2003 campaign there was talk of corruption and investigations, but not of illnesses. However, as the 2006 elections drew near the issue of the prime minister's health reared its head again.

The last interview

In April, 2005, before Passover, I went with my colleague Yossi Verter for a holiday interview with the prime minister. We did not know then that this would be the last interview with him. These meetings with Sharon were every journalist's nightmare: He prepared himself well for the questions and stuck to the points he had prepared in advance. How can we get him away from those pages, we asked ourselves, and we decided to bring up the health issue. There are elections soon, and he is no longer young. Maybe we'll succeed in catching him unprepared on a sensitive point.

But Sharon knew these questions and immediately pulled out his prepared answer: "I invite you to see my medical report. This could have a bad effect on other people's health." We accepted the challenge and asked to see the file. Sharon had not expected this: "In fact for me this would be quite convenient," he said. "I don't know how this is done." We insisted, and Sharon moved in his chair and turned to his spokesman Assaf Shariv. "Ah, how do we do this? Are there rules?" "We'll definitely check," replied Shariv. In an attempt to avoid embarrassment, Sharon declared: "I'd like to but it's just not the usual thing to do here. Maybe you can ask ..."

With this the matter ended. The rules were not found and the medical file was revealed, at least partially, only after Sharon's first stroke, when the people around him tried to show that he was healthy, fit to serve and be reelected.

A few months later I wrote an article about Sharon's health as an important issue in the approaching elections. I had no information about illnesses or difficulties, only an assessment that a man of his age is no longer at his best. At his bureau they said to me: "It's good that you're writing about this now, way before the campaign. This way they won't bother us later on." At the last press conference that Sharon held, about two weeks before the first stroke, he related jokingly to his advanced age and said: "In four months I'll be 78. This is the best age to move forward." (The name of the new party he had founded, Kadima, means "forward.") He stood there then and answered questions fluently for an hour and a half, and among the reporters there was amazed whispering that he was completely lucid. But the very fact of the discussion of Sharon's lucidity shows that his advanced age was indeed a cause for concern. No one, after all, raises this question regarding Olmert, Netanyahu or Barak.

It is difficult to know whether Sharon's physical hardships had a detrimental effect on the quality of his functioning as leader of the country or on the quality of the decisions he made, or whether he was more dependent on his sons, his close associates and the people of his bureau than he had been in the past. There is no doubt that up until the last minute the state of his health was of supreme importance to the country's future and that his sudden collapse sent all systems into a tailspin.

The lesson has not been learned: A year after Sharon's departure, there are still no compulsory rules for the reporting and supervision of the health of Israel's leaders, nor for a compulsory age for retirement from the position of prime minister, as there is for civil servants and judges.