- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 7, 2006

Sharon’s stroke

Middle East correspondent Joshua Mitnick called me from New York on Tuesday evening to say he would soon be boarding a flight home to Israel after having spent Christmas and New Year’s visiting his parents and other family members in the United States.

It was less than 24 hours later that he called from Tel Aviv to say that doctors in Israel were reporting that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had suffered a “significant stroke” and to ask whether he should file a story.

My initial reaction was to say no. We had been following the story from the wire agencies for the previous hour or two, and up to that point it looked as if Mr. Sharon had suffered nothing worse than the mild stroke he had undergone a couple of weeks earlier.

The Associated Press, which had been reporting the story since about 3:30 in the afternoon, had been saying the prime minister was “fully conscious” as he was transported to the hospital. It quoted Israel’s Channel 10 television as saying the symptoms “were not severe” and that there was another hospital closer to Mr. Sharon’s ranch where he could have been taken if his situation was urgent.

The Reuters news agency was similarly unalarmed in the early stages, reporting that Mr. Sharon’s “symptoms were similar to those he showed on Dec. 18 when he suffered a mild stroke.”

The very last report I had read before receiving Mr. Mitnick’s call was a Reuters report that began: “Early tests on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who was hospitalized on Wednesday after complaining he felt unwell, found no signs of unusual neurological or cardiological conditions, Israel Radio said.”

From a news point of view, the overriding issue with the health of any world leader is whether he is well enough to continue to serve — and in the case of Mr. Sharon, to campaign effectively in national elections scheduled for March.

Up to this point there was nothing to suggest he could not, and therefore not much of a story. We thought we might get away with as little as a three-paragraph “brief” in our daily roundup of secondary news.

Then things started to change dramatically.

Within minutes after I hung up with Mr. Mitnick, the wire agencies moved the same quote from the doctors our correspondent had heard, saying the stroke had been “significant.” Moments later, they began reporting that he had suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and CNN said he would be operated on to try to stem “massive bleeding” in his brain.

I don’t pretend to be a medical expert, but this was pretty obviously a threat to Mr. Sharon’s continued political career if not his life. I immediately notified Managing Editor Fran Coombs, who agreed it was front page news, and then called back Mr. Mitnick to tell him to get to work.

Seeking opinions

This is not Mr. Mitnick’s usual kind of story. He is by inclination an action reporter, who likes to get out and go places and do things.

Whenever there is a suicide bomb anywhere in Israel, Mr. Mitnick is generally in his car and on his way to the scene before I ever hear about it. But with this story there is nowhere to go. One could hang out at the hospital waiting for medical bulletins, but that would be pointless as they are all immediately available on the television.

The interest, in this case, lies mainly in trying to divine what will happen next.

Will the new centrist party put together by Mr. Sharon hold together or will its most prominent members go back to the old-line parties from which they defected? Would the old-line parties take them back?

Will Mr. Sharon’s departure from the political scene open the door for Benjamin Netanyahu to return for another term as prime minister? Will the new Labor leader Amir Peretz surprise everyone in the March elections?

And above all, what does all this mean for the prospects of a final settlement of Israel’s borders with the Palestinians?

No one can answer these questions yet. All we can do is go to the most politically astute people we can find, both in Israel and in the American policy community, and seek their opinions.

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is djones@washingtontimes.com.

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