- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 8, 2006

TEL AVIV — With Prime Minister Ariel Sharon lying in critical condition over the weekend after suffering a stroke on Wednesday, Palestinians and the broader Arab world have looked on with apprehension.

A brain scan on Mr. Sharon yesterday showed a slight easing of swelling, said Dr. Shlomo Mor-Yosef, director of Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem.

Dr. Jose Cohen, one of the neurosurgeons treating the prime minister, was quoted by Israeli radio as saying he thought Mr. Sharon would recover from the massive stroke he suffered and emerge in relatively good shape, but that after such a shock there would undoubtedly be cognitive damage.

Doctors were to decide today when to lift the prime minister’s medically induced coma to examine the extent of the neurological damage.

The incapacitation of Mr. Sharon has stunned Israel’s Arab neighbors. Yesterday, King Abdullah of Jordan telephoned acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to express his concern about Mr. Sharon’s health, and a day earlier Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak called to say that bilateral relations would continue to improve, the Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported.

To be sure, most throughout the Arab world aren’t forgiving Mr. Sharon for his tough response to the latest Palestinian uprising, or the massacre of Palestinian refugees in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps during Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

Video of Gazans passing out candy in response to the news of Mr. Sharon’s stroke reflected widely shared sentiment that considers the Israeli prime minister to be a war criminal, analysts said.

And yet, the rehabilitation of Mr. Sharon’s international reputation during his five years in office has also affected Palestinian views of the Israeli leader. Writing in the Palestinian daily Al-Ayyam, editor Abdel Nasser A-Najar compared Mr. Sharon to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and bemoaned the rising insecurity left behind by the two.

“The political map in both Israel and Palestine looks very complicated, with their borders intertwined and unclear. Even the road map looks like it is hibernating towards its death,” he said.

“After Sharon, the Israeli people will live in a state of vacuum and confusion not different from the state that the Palestinians had undergone after Yasser Arafat’s death. It will take years before both the Israelis and the Palestinians find leaders like Arafat and Sharon.”

Mr. Sharon’s stature as the chief political patron who helped the spread of Jewish settlements will probably overshadow, among Palestinians, his decision to relinquish Gaza.

Palestinians complain that the Gaza withdrawal has left residents cooped up in the tiny coastal strip while freeing Israel’s hand to complete the construction of its separation barrier through the West Bank and bolstering existing Jewish settlements there. At the same time, they don’t believe Mr. Sharon was prepared to renew peace negotiations that were halted just after he entered office five years ago.

“The Palestinians look at him as the master of unilateralism,” said Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi.

And yet, Mr. Sharon retains a special status among Palestinians for being the first Israeli prime minister able to evacuate Jewish settlements in Gaza and the West Bank.

“He hasn’t negotiated, but he has dismantled the settlements, which was a precedent, and we can’t ignore that. To people who look at it as a precedent, it’s important that the settlements be dismantled to prove that settlements aren’t a permanent feature of the landscape.”

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat expressed concern that the political vacuum in Israel would contribute to tension on the eve of a Palestinian parliamentary election scheduled for Jan. 25.

The transition from Mr. Sharon to Mr. Olmert may allow a dispute over the voting status of Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem to fester, and ultimately delay the election, Mr. Erekat warned.

“Sharon’s illness will affect us more than anyone else as Palestinians. He is the one occupying our land,” Mr. Erekat said. “I am worrying that the competition that will replace Sharon will build more settlements and more walls.”

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