- The Washington Times - Monday, January 9, 2006

JERUSALEM — Ariel Sharon started breathing on his own yesterday and moved his right arm and leg in response to pain stimulation in what his surgeon called an important development. But it will be days before doctors can determine whether the Israeli prime minister is lucid or will be able to return to the job.

“The prime minister is breathing spontaneously,” said Dr. Shlomo Mor-Yosef, the director of Hadassah Hospital, adding that the movements of Mr. Sharon’s arm and leg marked “a slight but significant improvement.”

Mr. Sharon’s response is a “very important” sign and indicated his brain stem is working, said his chief surgeon, Dr. Felix Umansky, briefing reporters for the first time.

It is still too early, however, to assess what impact the massive bleeding he suffered in his right brain would have on his abilities to think and reason or on the left side of his body, Dr. Umansky said.

“We are just at the beginning of a very long way,” the surgeon said. “It’s too early to talk about the cognitive issue.”

A final medical analysis on Mr. Sharon’s long-term prognosis would end days of uncertainty over the fate of the 77-year-old prime minister, who many herald as the best hope for Middle East peace. Doctors said his chances of survival are better, but he is far from out of danger.

He remains hooked up to a respirator and unconscious in a guarded room where classical music is being played.

More clarity as to Mr. Sharon’s condition might enable his new, centrist Kadima party to select a successor and start campaigning for March 28 elections. Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert — Mr. Sharon’s ally and a proponent of unilateral withdrawals from more Palestinian-claimed lands — is seen as the most likely heir.

Mr. Sharon has been in a medically induced coma since his massive stroke Jan. 4. Doctors plan to continue lowering the level of sedatives in his body over the next several days, Dr. Mor-Yosef said.

Mr. Sharon has not yet opened his eyes. His doctors hope he will when the sedative levels are lowered further, though outside experts cautioned there was no assurance he would wake up at all.

The doctors’ final assessment on Mr. Sharon’s brain damage, whenever it comes, will be presented to Attorney General Meni Mazuz, who will decide whether to declare the prime minister permanently incapacitated.

In the event of such a ruling, the Cabinet would have to elect a prime minister within 24 hours, from among the five sitting Kadima Cabinet ministers who are also lawmakers, said Justice Ministry spokesman Yaakov Galanti.

Mr. Olmert, who is among the five, was named acting prime minister after Mr. Sharon’s stroke, and can serve in the role for 100 days, which would carry him through the elections.

The uncertainty over Mr. Sharon’s condition has unsettled Israelis, who have been anxiously following news updates.

Former President Clinton said Mr. Sharon’s stroke is a blow to peace efforts. “All of us who believe in peace in the Middle East are in his debt, and so more than anything else, I pray for his health,” he said.

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