Sharon undergoes emergency surgery

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was rushed back to the operating theatre on Friday for emergency surgery to stop fresh bleeding in his brain as the country braced for the end of the Sharon era.

Shlomo Moryussef, director of Jerusalem’s Hadassah hospital, said “an area of bleeding” had been discovered when the 77-year-old underwent a brain scan to assess the damage caused by a massive haemorrhage.

“During the CT [computed tomography] scan, a slight expansion in the brain chambers was discovered, as well as an area of bleeding,” he told reporters.

“With the combination of the CT scan and with the changes in the parameters that we are monitoring—blood pressure and the pressure in his skull—it was decided to transfer the prime minister to the operating theatre in order to deal with these two issues: to drain the bleeding and to reduce the pressure in his skull.”

Sharon, who has been prime minister since February 2001, was admitted to the hospital on Wednesday, little more than two weeks after he suffered a minor stroke.

Doctors battled through the night to drain blood from his brain before he was placed in a medically induced coma.

The downturn in Sharon’s condition came after some of his closest allies acknowledged he is unlikely to ever return to office, while doctors have privately said he may well have suffered irreversible brain damage.

One of the doctors at the hospital told the Maariv daily that “we cannot say this with certainty, but due to the location of the problem, we believe that the damage that the prime minister suffered is expected to cause paralysis and perhaps his speech will be affected to a certain extent”.

Another of Sharon’s doctors was quoted as telling the Haaretz daily that the damage was likely to be “extensive and irreversible”.

The collapse of the prime minister’s health came with him seeking election to a third term in office as head of his new centrist Kadima party.

For the moment at least, officials have said a scheduled general election in Israel will go ahead as planned in three months’ time on March 28.

Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Ehud Olmert has been named acting prime minister in accordance with the law.

However in the event of Sharon dying or being permanently incapacitated, Olmert’s temporary appointment will have to be approved in a Cabinet vote.

Olmert held talks on Friday with former Labour prime minister and Sharon ally, Shimon Peres, amid speculation that he would ask him to rejoin the government as an elder statesmen in the absence of Sharon.

Peres expressed his fear about his erstwhile rival after the meeting.

“I’m no expert, just an ordinary citizen, and I’m very worried about his health,” he told reporters.

Sharon’s illness also comes amid rising chaos in the West Bank and Gaza Strip ahead of a January 25 Palestinian legislative election which will also have far-reaching consequences for the peace process.

 

A White House spokesperson stressed the Palestinian elections should go ahead as planned despite the uncertainty caused by Sharon’s illness.

Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas on Thursday insisted the ballot would not be postponed.

Few Israelis have left such a mark on both the military and political landscape as the controversial Sharon over the past 50 years.

While Sharon lay fighting for his life, the Israeli media began publishing his political obituaries which all acknowledged his towering presence.

Haaretz said he deserved the nation’s gratitude for showing courage by pulling out of the Gaza Strip as well as standing up to Palestinian violence.

“Sharon is completing his term as a revered leader who was able to stand up to enemies at home and abroad, and only faltered on the heroic battle for health,” it said.

The Jerusalem Post also noted how Sharon had managed to transform himself from an international pariah into highly respected world leader.

“Ours is a changed and uncertain country without him at its helm, and many Israelis feel thoroughly bereft without his massive overwhelming presence.”

Poll shows Sharon’s party would win election

Meanwhile, Sharon’s centrist Kadima Party would win the March 28 general election even without the prime minister at the helm, according to an opinion poll published on Friday.

Sharon had established Kadima in November, after quitting his hardline Likud Party.

Kadima scored high in opinion polls, a reflection of both Sharon’s popularity and growing Israeli support for more territorial concessions and a peace deal with the Palestinians.

Kadima’s fate was seen as being closely tied to the charismatic Sharon, and was given little hope of political survival without him.

However, a survey published on Friday suggested that Kadima’s popularity among voters remained largely unchanged, and that it would win the most Parliament seats of any party.

It is not yet clear who will lead Kadima into the March elections.

Likely candidates are Olmert and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, a rising star in Israeli politics and a Sharon protégé. The poll also measured the popularity of former Peres, who left the moderate Labour Party to support Sharon, but stopped short of joining Kadima.

A survey in the Yediot Ahronot daily on Friday indicated that an Olmert-headed Kadima would win 39 of 120 Parliament seats, compared to 36 seats if Livni were the party leader.
A Peres-led Kadima would net 42 seats. Under Sharon, Kadima was expected to get about 40 mandates.

The next largest party, Labour, was holding steady with about 20 seats, while Likud would capture 16 seats, according to the poll among 500 people. The survey had an error margin of 4,4% points.

Meir Sheetrit, a Kadima legislator, dismissed forecasts that Kadima would now crumble.

“Kadima ... is a path, not just a man,” he told Israel Radio.

“We believe in the path charted by the prime minister and the group of people that stands behind the prime minister will continue to manage the Kadima party and will run in the election and in my opinion will also win the election,” Sheetrit said.

‘Israel’s Loss’

With titles alluding to Israel’s future “after Sharon,” leading United States dailies on Friday underscored the question mark Sharon’s sudden departure raises over Israel’s relations with the Palestinians.

The New York Times said Israel now had “three clear choices… the same old Likud way: inflaming Palestinan tensions through war and continuing settlements… the Labour way: negotiations with the Palestinians.”

And “the third way that Kadima could theoretically represent ... the idea that the Israelis can’t live with the Palestinians, so they will separate from the Palestinians and build a wall to make the separation visible and permanent”.

“It would secure Mr Sharon’s place in history if the centrist party he founded somehow managed to turn his vision of separation into one of a just and lasting peace,” said the Times.

Sharon’s departure is “Israel’s Loss,” The Washington Post said in its editorial, adding that “now, once again Israel’s future is up for grabs”.

“The incapacitation of… Sharon greatly reduces the possibility that his country will take significant steps toward a settlement with Palestinians during the remainder of [United States] President [George] Bush’s administration,” the Post said.

“Loss of ‘bulldozer’ leaves path to peace clogged,” said USA Today. “Now that… Sharon appears permanently sidelined, the world’s fragile hopes for peace in the troubled region are sidelined with him.”

Like the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Sharon “was every bit the enemy of the olive branch… But today, the question is whether there can be peace without him”.

“In his twilight years,” said the nationally distributed newspaper, “Sharon realised what US administrations have preached for decades: Lasting security for Israelis requires giving Palestinians dignity, hope for economic security, and eventually their own state.

“His absence creates a void in which the United States, long the indispensable broker of Mideast peace, will face new hurdles,” concluded USA Today.

Whoever takes over from Sharon as Israel’s leader, said The Wall Street Journal, “inherits tasks that are only partially completed. His success will largely depend on whether he continues to build on the foundations that ‘Arik’ built”.

The conservative economic daily praised what is said were Sharon’s three main achievements: with “a combination of large-scale Israeli military actions, targeted killings of Hamas leaders… the arrest and incarceration of suspected Palestinian terrorists, and the building of the security barrier in the West Bank ... Sharon ended the Palestinian intifada”.

He advanced the idea of “disengagement,” or abandoning Israeli settlements in Gaza and parts of the West Bank, and “gave his blessing to an ambitious economic agenda.”

Israel faces many daunting hurdles, but “for all that lies ahead, Israel is better prepared to meet those challenges thanks in no small measure to Ariel Sharon”, The Wall Street Journal said. - Sapa-AFP

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