In Sharon's Inner Chambers

Sharon's body is not all that interesting to the public that depends on him to make life-or-death decisions and wants to extend his tenure by four more years, but the prime minister's brain is not his private matter.

"Yes, please," the prime minister said again and again. Ariel Sharon is famously polite, but this time it was inappropriate. In order to examine whether Sharon's mental faculties had been damaged, the medical staff asked him to say his name when he arrived at Hadassah University Hospital, Ein Karem in Jerusalem. "Yes, please," Sharon repeated.

Sharon's doctors are supposed to report to the public today on the prime minister's physical condition. So far they have done so only in a limited manner: They did not mention, for example, that the tests at Hadassah showed a problem with Sharon's thyroid gland - not a very serious problem, but one requiring medication that requires some discipline and that must be added to the other pills that he must swallow in order to stabilize other conditions.

The hole that was discovered in one of the chambers of Sharon's heart, which is supposed to be mended by surgery within weeks, was responsible for the blood clot that caused his stroke. The clot could have been created while Sharon was sleeping, and had it dissolved before he awoke it is possible that neither he nor anyone else would have been aware of any incident whatsoever. Alternatively, the clot could have caused irreversible damage to various functions relevant to Sharon's decision-making apparatus, which in recent years has become the decision-making apparatus of the state of Israel.

Sharon's body is not all that interesting to the public that depends on him to make life-or-death decisions and wants to extend his tenure by four more years, but the prime minister's brain is not his private matter. The prime minister can hole himself up in his office or even be bedridden, as long as there is no diminishment in his ability to focus, to concentrate, to analyze information, to weigh various options and to set priorities - in other words, to make decisions. His physicians must be able to eliminate all doubt in this area. In Sharon's other file, his criminal file, the recommendation for closure was based on the doubts of Attorney General Menachem Mazuz. But with regard to the medical file of a 78-year-old leader, doubts work against him.

Complete transparency about his mental functioning in the wake of the stroke and expectations for the future are made even more critical by the fact that Sharon is maintaining opacity regarding his post-election intentions and is asking his voters to trust that he will know what to do when he reaches a critical juncture. If the voters are being asked more to hire his services and less to sign off on his platform, he must be able to convince the country's citizens that when he is in a one-on-one meeting with George W. Bush, the Israeli eyes involved in the encounter will not be staring blankly into space for even a moment.

Transparency is essential, too, for the work of the team surrounding Sharon, those who were not elected and are liable to conceal the prime minister's true condition and even to pull the strings. In the innermost chambers inside the walls is a secret system of influence by a lawyer, an advertising agent and family members. The history of the previous century is filled with examples of the disastrous results of such influences.

The security wall around Sharon provides a convenient excuse for heading off public questioning of his behavior; one of the tests that Sharon should be given on rapid thinking and the ability to improvise a response should be a debate between him and the other main candidates for prime minister.

A relevant reference group for Sharon is the gang of generals who were on the General Staff during the 1967 war. Many of them - Ezer Weizman and Haim Bar-Lev, Aharon Yariv and David Elazar, Motti Hod and Matti Peled - have passed away, some in an instant and others after a long decline. In talks with Yitzhak Rabin shortly before his murder, embarrassing symptoms of a loss of the sharpness and focus that had always characterized him, such as the repetition of words and sentences, had begun to appear. Sharon is younger, and their fate is not necessarily his, but his proximity to his ninth decade does not augur well.

In the summer of 1958, 47 years ago, Yochai Ben-Nun, then commander of the 13th Fleet and in later years commander of the Israel Navy, wrote home from London about a meeting he had there with then Defense Ministry director general Shimon Peres and then lieutenant colonel Sharon, who was studying at a British military college. "Arik traveled from his base especially to meet with me. We walked the bustling streets of London aimlessly, finally going into some cellar bar where we drank a bit. I got the impression that Arik is a little beholden to Shimon. He is a sharp guy, but he seemed like a spoiled youth who was pampered for a long time and is infected with careerism. He will be completing his studies very shortly and apparently has been tapped for an important position. That, at least, is what Shimon hinted to me."

Five decades later, with Sharon as the senior member of the pair, Kadima's top two are offering themselves as leaders until the summer of 2010, when Peres will be 87 and Sharon 82. The burden of proving their fitness for the job rests on them.