Olmert's Cancer / A Double-edged Sword

A thin, ironic smile hovered on Ehud Olmert's pale, made-up face when he left yesterday's news conference after announcing that he had been diagnosed with cancer.

What made him smile? Perhaps the sympathy on the journalists' faces. Perhaps he was thinking of all that he had been through in the past 18 months since becoming prime minister: war, a lethal report by an inquiry committee, endless police investigations and now cancer.

So many crises, more than enough for an entire lifetime, and perhaps the worst is yet to come. His doctors went out of their way to describe the tumor as a negligible pimple ("something microscopic that doesn't do anything ... meaningless"), but nobody envied Olmert yesterday.

The political system, which usually causes him nothing but grief, was awash with sympathy and solidarity for Olmert. Suddenly he was exposed and vulnerable, human, like in those post-crisis photographs that caught him nodding off with exhaustion. Only this time it was worse than another sleepless night. Suddenly, words of appreciation were heard even from rivals, who complimented him on his stamina and level-headedness.

No doubt Olmert's dignified conduct and openness will win him public sympathy and quell the ranting of his rivals. But he is aware that the sympathy will pass and that his real troubles lie ahead: the Winograd Committee's report on the Second Lebanon War, the police investigations, the Annapolis summit and, of course, the surgery. As routine and risk-free as it may be, it is still an operation, meaning anesthesia, knives and possible complications.

Yesterday morning, Olmert met with senior Jewish Agency and World Zionist Organization officials in the Prime Minister's Office. One participant said that Olmert was pale and very tense, as were his aides.

The expected announcement and the nationwide speculation ahead of the news conference played havoc with Olmert's nerves, and with those of his aides. But his aides said that when he informed them of the news last weekend, he told them: "Don't worry. I'll get through this." He held up the example of his friend, former New York mayor Rudolph Guiliani, who was diagnosed with prostate cancer, recovered completely and is now running for president of the United States.

Olmert's people know that the disease, whose name used to be uttered only in a whisper, could have beneficial short-term effects for the prime minister. But they also know that it is a double-edged sword. From now on, every cold, cough, pallor or pimple on the prime minister's face will attract the media's attention. The usual questions regarding Olmert's performance, concentration and attention span will be accompanied by queries about his health. From now on, the prime minister's health - both Olmert's and his successors' - will be the public's business.

Yesterday, dozens of urologists probed Olmert's wretched prostate. As the operation nears - barring a repeat of Ariel Sharon's horrific scenario - these probes will deepen.

Once it was Sharon's spontaneous breathing. Today, it is Olmert's prostate.