Olmert Diagnosis Stirs Israel's Political Cauldron

Olmert said he will have surgery, and that the disease is not life threatening.

JERUSALEM, Oct. 29, 2007 — -- Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced Monday that he has been diagnosed with prostate cancer. Olmert's face was caked with makeup, but it didn't conceal his pallor as he stood at the podium before a battery of cameras.

At a hastily convened press conference, Olmert, 62, said his doctors called the growth "microscopic," saying "it has not metastasized and it can be removed in a short surgical procedure."

After the announcement Olmert hurriedly left the room with his political and military advisers.

A pair of his doctors stayed behind to explain how the tumor could be easily treated. Olmert probably wouldn't miss a day of work and would likely not have to undergo chemotherapy or radiation. Shlomo Segev, one of Olmert's doctors, said a biopsy had been performed Oct. 19, after Olmert's return from talks with Russia's President Vladimir Putin.

He said prostate cancer caught at such an early stage is nearly 100 percent treatable and that the chances that he might live a cancer-free life are 95 percent.

Israeli media swiftly pounced on the story. The networks here broke to live coverage and deferred their traditionally acerbic punditry to panels of sympathetic oncologists and cancer survivors.

That the prostate surgery might shortly follow the much-anticipated U.S.-sponsored peace conference at Annapolis, Md., later this year, sent jitters through the Israeli press.

December marks two years since what doctors called a "minor stroke" eventually unleashed a massive brain hemorrhage in Olmert's predecessor, Ariel Sharon. As vice-premier Olmert took the reigns of government in January 2006.

Nov. 4 marks 12 years since the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Both Rabin and Sharon, like Olmert, were in the midst of leading Israel through a massive upheaval. Rabin broke a decades-old taboo by negotiating with Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Liberation Organization in a process known as the Oslo Accords. The talks eventually gave rise to the Palestinian Authority headed by Arafat.

Similarly, in 2005 Sharon had navigated a tricky withdrawal of troops and Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip, and announced a plan to evacuate large swaths of the West Bank, before his stroke left him brain dead.

Veteran Israeli political scientist Yaron Ezrahi said one can't compare decorated generals-turned politicians like Rabin and Sharon to Olmert. "The Rabin trauma, in which a Jew assassinated a sitting prime minister in the process of leading a peace process, had far-reaching consequences. It by far eclipses the Sharon trauma and certainly Olmert's much more minor illness."

Ezrahi said Olmert might gain a few percentage points in public opinion polls on the sympathy factor.

Olmert's illness did win him a temporary respite from rivals. Dore Gold, a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations and foreign policy adviser to hawkish opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, commended the transparency of the Olmert government.

He told ABC News that "in the past there wasn't this much transparency" in revealing the medical conditions of previous prime ministers. Gold noted that Olmert's "coming clean" reduces public apprehension of yet more uncertainty in this conflict-stricken country. Still Israel's booming stock indices dipped after the announcement.

Yet the prime minister has a long way to climb. Olmert's approval ratings plummeted following Israel's ill-fated war in Lebanon last summer. The decline continued after a war commission found that he had led an unprepared Israel into a war it couldn't win. Ratings kept crashing through to the single digits when Israel's attorney general ordered the first of three criminal investigations into Olmert. He is suspected of corruption in all of them.

Political scientist Ezrahi said, "These expressions of sympathy are of minor significance. They will not be able to eclipse the real dangers faced by Olmert due to the investigations of corruption hanging over his head."

He added that failure at the Annapolis talks might doom Olmert politically. "If the conference is a flop, no medical report is going to save this prime minister."