- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 4, 2006

TEL AVIV — Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, 77, a towering figure in the history of the Middle East for decades, was fighting for his life after suffering a massive cerebral hemorrhage late yesterday.

Doctors at Jerusalem’s Hadassah Ein Karem Hospital completed more than five hours of emergency surgery early today, saying Mr. Sharon had survived but failing to clear doubts over his ability to return to the office he has held for nearly five years, to run for re-election in March or to oversee the Palestinian peace talks.

Mr. Sharon’s duties were signed over to Vice Prime Minister Ehud Olmert after the prime minister became unconscious at the hospital, said Israeli Cabinet Secretary Yisrael Maimon. Mr. Olmert was to preside over an emergency Cabinet meeting today.

With elections scheduled for March 28 and Mr. Sharon heading a recently formed centrist party well ahead in the polls, the prospect of the prime minister’s incapacitation would leave Israel’s political system in a state of utter turmoil.

“It looks very bad. I don’t know if he will recover,” a senior political official told the Reuters news agency. Early press accounts suggested the prime minister could suffer significant paralysis even if he does recover.

Expressions of concern poured in from world leaders, including President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Mr. Sharon “is a man of courage and peace,” Mr. Bush said in a statement released by the White House. “On behalf of all Americans, we send our best wishes and hopes to the prime minister and his family.”

Palestinian spokesman Nabil Shaath said Mr. Sharon’s illness only deepened concerns over the struggling peace talks.

“On a purely humanitarian level, we feel sorry for Mr. Sharon,” he told reporters. “Politically, it will increase the uncertainty we are facing to get back to the peace process and maybe this uncertainty will continue” through the March vote.

A soldier who fought in all of Israel’s major conflicts with its Arab neighbors, Mr. Sharon earned the nickname “The Bulldozer” for his audacity on the battlefield and his stubborn, fiercely patriotic career both in government and opposition.

Long a hero to Israel’s nationalist right wing for championing the spread of settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, he took a major political gamble by overseeing Israel’s pullout from the Gaza Strip and breaking with his longtime Likud Party power base for the March elections.

But his uncompromising defense of Israeli security interests also earned Mr. Sharon widespread enmity in the Arab world.

Mushir al-Masri, spokesman for the Islamic militant group Hamas, said yesterday the “whole region will be better off with him absent than with him present because Sharon was the one who carried out massacres and terrorism for decades against our people.”

But Raanan Gissin, a Sharon spokesman, warned Iast night, “To anyone who entertains any notion to try and exploit this situation … the security forces and [Israeli army] are ready for any kind of challenge.”

The sudden deterioration in the health of Israel’s most popular politician came just hours before Mr. Sharon was to undergo an operation to close a hole between the chambers of his heart discovered after he suffered a minor stroke less than three weeks ago.

Mr. Sharon was rushed to Jerusalem from his ranch in southern Israel after feeling unwell following a routine workday, according to television reports.

Within a half-hour, hospital director Shlomo Mor-Yosef emerged to tell reporters that the prime minister had suffered a “significant stroke.”

The departure of Mr. Sharon would open a wide vacuum in Israeli politics. The ex-general had come to dominate Israeli politics after he succeeded in reining in Palestinian bombings and dismantling Jewish settlements during the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip late in the summer.

Mr. Sharon’s stroke could boost the political fortunes of his Likud successor, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and opposition Labor leader Amir Peretz, both of whom lag far behind in the polls, analysts said.

Under Israeli law, Mr. Olmert can serve as acting prime minister for a maximum of three months before a permanent leader must be appointed.

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