And Above All, Fear Not

Every person experiences the inevitable gap between his real life and the way he portrays it to the outside world.

"I have been diagnosed with the first signs of a cancerous growth in the prostate gland. According to what my doctors have told me, this is a microscopic growth that has not metastasized, which can be removed in a short surgical procedure. There is a full chance of recovery and there is nothing about the tumor that is life-threatening or liable to impair my functioning. I will be fit to carry out my duties both prior to the treatment and within a few hours after the treatment. It is my intention to continue with my work and to devote myself entirely to running the affairs of state. Even though I am not obliged to do so by law, I wanted to inform the public in a full and frank way. The Israeli citizen has the right to know" - Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, at a press conference, October 29

Every person experiences the inevitable gap between his real life and the way he portrays it to the outside world. All of us participate in this masked ball, and famous people even more so. When it comes to a prime minister, the mission is particularly complicated: On the one hand, his outward image is an essential tool for fulfilling his role; on the other hand, his life, his habits and his weaknesses are public property, and it is hard for him to create an image that contradicts what is obvious to the eye.

The case of Ehud Olmert brings this tension to a record high. His role obligates him to reveal medical information that indicates weakness, but image considerations oblige him to demonstrate strength, self-confidence and a total capacity to function. He cannot, for example, admit to the real feelings that accompany a person in his situation - shock, fear, worry, anger and depression. In political terms this would be interpreted as a loss of strength, and as an invitation to undermine his leadership. What is permitted to every cancer patient is forbidden to a cancer patient who is a prime minister.

Olmert's announcement at the press conference should therefore be read more as a political text than as an authentic personal statement. Naturally, he would have preferred to avoid it - despite "the public's right to know" - like many of his predecessors did (Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, Menachem Begin, Amnon Lipkin-Shahak), and like he did when refraining from informing the public of the shingles from which he suffered. But cancer isn't shingles, and in the new media world Olmert had no alternative. The compromise was to present the facts in a selective way and in a too-optimistic light.

"A microscopic growth?" Doctors (like Dr. Motti Ravid) are saying that the rate of cell division is indeed slow, but far from being indicative of anything "microscopic." "Full chance of recovery?" Not exactly. The chances are only very good (90 percent). "Nothing liable to impair functioning?" Only if you are Superman. "I will be fit to carry out my duties within a few hours after the treatment?" Experience teaches that in the best-case scenario, it takes at least a week before someone who has undergone such surgery is able to return to full functioning. According to a less optimistic scenario, the surgery can lead to complications that also affect one's fitness.

"Devote myself entirely to affairs of state?" Let us be content with "devote myself mostly." At least partly, Olmert will be "devoted" to dealing with criminal investigations and to coping with the cancer. Beyond the programmatic report, Olmert took care to neutralize any emotional reaction to his illness. He also did not let reporters ask any questions, leaving the moment he completed his statement. The public had to make do with the declarations of his physician, Dr. Shlomo Segev, to the effect that Olmert had accepted the news "quietly and calmly."

The two reporters close to Olmert, who were given access to the family's inner sanctum - Shimon Schiffer of the mass-circulation daily Yedioth Ahronoth and Ben Caspit of the rival daily Maariv - reported on his calmness and amazing self-control. According to Schiffer, Olmert reassured his doctors ("Get over it. Don't take it so hard") and his aides ("What are you worried about? We'll get through this, too"). According to Caspit, he related to the matter with stoic serenity: "'Have a seat. Have something to drink. I'll be with you in a moment,' he said to the doctors, as though he were going to treat them ... From that moment on, Olmert was the calmest person in the room."

The result at this stage is a considerable improvement in the prime minister's public image. This is not only a consequence of the state of his health, which has elicited unimaginable waves of affection and consideration (to the point where even the generally hard-hitting Channel 2 TV program "Fact" decided to postpone the broadcast of an investigation of the investigations against Olmert).

The increasing support, reflected in the latest public opinion polls, also stems from the way he is dealing with the illness. Olmert comes across in the media as a person who has an extraordinary ability to withstand external pressures. Previously, this was expressed in the way he continued to function despite a barrage of opposition in the wake of the war, as well as the investigations that have continued to be launched against him. Now, his poise is being manifested in the equanimity with which he is taking the news. The average citizen's conclusion is that he has a prime minister who does not lose his cool easily. He will not collapse like Yitzhak Rabin did when he was the chief of staff in the Six-Day War, and will not lose his head when pressures arise, as Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu has done. Paradoxically, the illness that one might have expected to weaken Olmert is only strengthening him politically.

But is this the real Olmert? Is he really as devoid of fear as he appears to be (with the help of admiring reporters)? I am certain that like every mortal, he is experiencing anxieties and distress, even if his lot is an itsy-bitsy, easily cured cancer. But unlike many others, he knows (and needs) to repress these feelings deeply, at least outwardly. What is happening inside him is a different matter altogether. It is not impossible that the shingles, a psychosomatic illness that usually erupts in conditions of pressure and distress, is part of the price he is paying.

I hope the prime minister that will find outlets for expressing feelings and needs that are not usually made public because of his position. Image is important, but life is more important. After all, cancer is a multi-systemic illness that is not restricted only to the physical-oncological element, and with respect to treatment, it is vital to deal with its psychological, emotional, familial and even spiritual aspects.

In the meantime, Olmert is enjoying fine public profits for his courageous attitude toward his illness, but he too knows that his true courage has to be tested on the political and not the personal level. We have seen enough leaders who have excelled at personal courage, but were scared when they had to make difficult political decisions. The Annapolis conference will prove whether Olmert is of this common breed and whether the man who looks cancer straight in the eye will also know how to look Minister of Industry, Trade and Labor Eli Yishai of Shas and Minister of Strategic Affairs Avigdor Liberman of Yisrael Beiteinu, straight in the eye.