- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 3, 2006

JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will hand over power to his deputy during a heart procedure this week, his office said yesterday, the first time an Israeli leader has agreed to give up his authority because of illness.

Mr. Sharon’s office played down concerns about the 77-year-old leader’s health, saying the procedure to close a small hole in his heart, including a period when he will be under general anesthesia, will last only three hours. However, officials canceled the weekly Cabinet meeting Sunday to give Mr. Sharon an extra day to recover.

Vice Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will take over during the procedure, Mr. Sharon’s office said.

Doctors discovered the hole after Mr. Sharon suffered a mild stroke Dec. 18. The hole, measuring about one-eighth of an inch, apparently led to the stroke by allowing a small blood clot to reach Mr. Sharon’s brain.

Although Mr. Sharon temporarily lost the ability to speak, his doctors said the prime minister suffered no lasting damage. He has resumed his full workload, and doctors say tomorrow’s procedure, called a heart catheterization, will virtually eliminate the risk of a similar stroke.

The process of transferring power is spelled out in a 1992 law. But tomorrow will mark the first time in Israel’s 57-year history that a leader has yielded his authority because of an illness, said legal commentator Moshe Negbi. In previous cases, including lengthy illnesses suffered by Golda Meir in the 1970s and Menachem Begin in the 1980s, their ailments were hidden from the public.

Last month’s stroke has put the health of Mr. Sharon, who turns 78 next month, on the political agenda as he seeks a third term in March 28 elections.

Mr. Sharon recently quit the hard-line Likud Party to head a new centrist party, Kadima (Forward), in the upcoming election.

The health scare appears to have had no effect on the party’s prospects. Opinion polls forecast a strong victory for Kadima, and show Likud far behind.

Benjamin Netanyahu, a former prime minister elected to lead Likud last month, said yesterday he would not make an issue out of Mr. Sharon’s health during the campaign.

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