- The Washington Times - Friday, January 6, 2006

JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will be kept in a comalike state for up to three days as the Israeli leader clings to life after a massive stroke, doctors said yesterday.

As his sons kept a bedside vigil and state radio stations broadcast mournful songs, Israelis were still coming to terms with the potential loss of a figure who has dominated political life and revamped the Middle East peace process since taking power five years ago.

Hadassah hospital’s switchboard was flooded with get-well messages, and the nation’s top rabbis called on Israelis to rush to synagogues and pray for the 77-year-old ex-general, whom many saw as the best hope for peace with the Palestinians.

Mr. Sharon’s deputy, Ehud Olmert, tried to convey a sense of stability while serving as acting prime minister, but Mr. Sharon’s dramatic downturn left Israelis fearful.

Dr. Shlomo Mor-Yosef, Hadassah hospital director general, tried to quash widespread rumors that the prime minister was brain-dead. Mr. Sharon’s pupils were responding to light, “which means the brain is functioning,” he told reporters.

Mr. Sharon underwent seven hours of surgery yesterday at Hadassah hospital after suffering a brain hemorrhage. He will remain sedated and on a respirator for two to three days to give him time to recover, and then will be gradually awakened, hospital officials said.

Mr. Sharon’s collapse less than three months before March 28 elections left in limbo his centrist Kadima Party, which had appeared headed for a clear victory.

Palestinians reacted with a mixture of glee at seeing the fall of their longtime enemy and apprehension at the instability that could follow. Some Palestinian leaders worried Mr. Sharon’s illness could derail their own Jan. 25 parliamentary elections.

Foreign leaders, who embraced Mr. Sharon after his unilateral pullout from the Gaza Strip last year, also expressed concern.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice praised Mr. Sharon as “a man of enormous courage,” and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said he was praying for a miraculous recovery. Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi postponed a visit to the region, and two U.S. envoys who were to arrive yesterday delayed their trip.

Under Israeli law, Mr. Olmert, a former mayor of Jerusalem, took office as acting prime minister. He held an emergency Cabinet meeting yesterday — sitting beside Mr. Sharon’s empty seat — and said the government would continue to function.

Attorney General Meni Mazuz announced that the Israeli election would be held as planned. Mr. Sharon was to face off against the new head of his former Likud Party, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Labor Party leader Amir Peretz.

A snap poll published yesterday showed an Olmert-led Kadima would still win 40 of 120 seats in the Knesset, similar to the results under Mr. Sharon.

Despite Mr. Sharon’s age and the minor stroke he suffered almost three weeks ago, Israelis seemed shocked by the illness of a man viewed as unflappable during his decades in public life, first as a hero in Israel’s earliest wars and later as the country’s best-known political hawk.

Mr. Sharon led Israel’s fight against the Palestinians during nearly five years of violence and his military background gave him the credibility with the Israeli public to make painful concessions to the Palestinians.

“He was one of a kind. I don’t know any other man like him,” said Tommy Lapid, head of the opposition secular Shinui Party.

Despite the Gaza pullout, Mr. Sharon is widely reviled in the Arab world for his long history of tough actions against Palestinians and Israel’s Arab adversaries.

Some Palestinian children handed out sweets in the Gaza Strip at news of Mr. Sharon’s illness. Iran’s Islamist President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said he hoped Mr. Sharon would not survive.

The prime minister fell ill Wednesday evening while resting at his ranch in southern Israel ahead of a medical procedure originally scheduled for yesterday to close a small hole in his heart. Doctors rushed him to Jerusalem, and he suffered the stroke during the hourlong drive.

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