I'm still here, says Sharon after stroke

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suffered no permanent damage from a mild stroke and will be released from the hospital on Tuesday, his doctors said on Monday.

Although Sharon is expected to make a full recovery, the illness raised questions about his ability to lead the country if he wins a third term in March and left his new centrist Kadima party scrambling.

Kadima, formed last month after Sharon departed the hard-line Likud party, is built around the popular 77-year-old premier and would almost certainly lose its commanding lead in the polls without him. Concerns about Sharon’s health could become a focus of the campaign, and improve the prospects for his former party.

Likud voters went to the polls on Monday to choose a new party leader to replace Sharon. Polls forecast a narrow victory for former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu over Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom.
Final results were expected at about midnight.

Sharon underwent additional brain and full-body scans on Monday after being rushed to Hadassah University hospital in Jerusalem on Sunday night, showing signs of confused speech.

Doctors at Hadassah said the stroke was caused by a small blood clot that broke up quickly. They said he never lost consciousness or suffered paralysis, and the stroke only temporarily affected his speech, not his memory or cognitive abilities.

“I can say confidently that the stroke will leave no damage or residual effects,” said his neurologist, Dr Tamir Ben-Hur, adding that Sharon is competent to carry out his duties as prime minister.

Sharon is being treated with anticoagulants meant to prevent additional strokes, Ben-Hur added.

“I would say chances are excellent that he won’t have another one,” Ben-Hur said.

Sharon held his daily staff meeting in the hospital on Monday morning. Ben-Hur said Sharon was being kept in the hospital overnight to ensure he received needed rest.

Sharon’s chief of staff, Ilan Cohen, said Sharon will return to his official residence in Jerusalem “probably get some rest for the next few days and come back to full work”.

‘I’m still here’

Sharon did not speak to the media on Monday, but Israeli newspapers said he called them late on Sunday to assure them he was OK. The Maariv daily said Sharon dismissed talk that a caretaker prime minister might take his post.

“Well, maybe it’s too early. I’m still here,” he told the paper.

Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he was never approached to take the reins of the government.

Sharon was at risk for stroke because of his age and obesity. He has never released medical records, and a right-wing lawmaker and physician, Arieh Eldad, has demanded that the prime minister do so now.

The doctors insisted that Sharon immediately start a diet.

Sharon received calls from United States President George Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas also sent wishes for a speedy recovery.

Mixed reaction

Reaction in the Palestinian street was mixed, with some celebrating his illness and others wishing he would recover, because they believe only he can strike a peace deal with the Palestinians.

Sharon holds a special place in the collective Palestinian consciousness. He is widely reviled for his connection to a 1982 massacre of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon by an Israeli-allied militia, and distrusted because of Israel’s tough policies against Palestinian militants during the past five years of fighting.

But earlier this year, Sharon led Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. With Sharon talking of resuming peace talks after March elections, many Palestinians understand their future could be tied to his.

“Sharon is the only one who could make peace with the Palestinians. Sharon started it, and if he doesn’t finish, it will take a long time before a strong Israeli leader will come and make peace,” said Naim Zarloul, a clothing-store clerk in the Balata refugee camp in the northern West Bank.

But Abu Aziz, a leader of the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades militant group in Balata, said he was “ready to throw a party and fire in the air” if Sharon died.

Members of Sharon’s Kadima Party insisted that the prime minister’s illness wouldn’t cripple the new faction.

“The prime minister’s leadership is the cornerstone of Kadima, and will continue to be,” Justice Minister Tzipi Livni told Army Radio. But she said there is a “worthy coterie” of other leaders as well.

Sharon formed Kadima after concluding that his efforts to make peace moves as head of Likud would be fruitless. Sharon faced resistance from within Likud during the Gaza pull-out, completed in September.


On Monday, Likud voters were choosing a replacement for Sharon from four candidates: Netanyahu, Shalom, hard-liner Moshe Feiglin and Agriculture Minister Yisrael Katz.

Netanyahu quit Sharon’s government shortly before the Gaza pull-out to protest the withdrawal. He is now taking a tough line against further territorial concessions. Shalom is considered more moderate, and more likely to join a coalition government with Kadima should it emerge as the dominant party in March 28 elections.

In other news, the Israeli air force resumed air strikes against rocket- and mortar-launching sites in Gaza on Monday, carrying out two attacks after striking 11 times overnight, the military said.

The attacks came after Palestinians fired a rocket that exploded near a power plant outside the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon.

Two Palestinian paramedics were slightly hurt by flying glass. No Israeli injuries were reported.

Separately, the military reported that a Palestinian militant wearing an explosives belt was apprehended on Monday trying to cross from Gaza into Israel. No further details were given.—Sapa-AP

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