Ariel Sharon breathing unaided

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was breathing unassisted on Monday while being gradually awoken from a deep coma so doctors can assess the extent of damage to his brain after a massive stroke.

The procedure will be the biggest breakthrough in his condition since the 77-year-old former general was wired up to a life-support machine after a huge brain haemorrhage and three operations.

The director of Jerusalem’s Hadassah hospital, where Sharon has been treated since suffering the brain haemorrhage on Wednesday night, said the prime minister began breathing spontaneously in the first sign of activity in his brain since he was placed in the coma.

“We have started to reduce the amount of anaesthesia,” Shlomo Mor Yosef told reporters. “In the first stage, Mr Sharon has begun to breathe spontaneously although he is still connected to the ventilator. This is the first sign of some sort of activity in his brain.”

Doctors say he could survive, but have ruled out the chances of him returning as prime minister, leaving Israel staring into a political void expected to be felt far beyond the country’s narrow borders in the wider Middle East.

Sharon has been comatose, in a critical situation, since Wednesday night when he suffered his second stroke in less than three weeks, leaving Israelis addicted to television and radio bulletins for hourly news of his health.

After days of uncertainty, doctors have appeared more confident they can save his life, but are warning his condition will not allow him to absorb the stresses of leading the Jewish state.

One doctor at the Hadassah said on condition of anonymity that Sharon is running a risk of paralysis or other difficulties that would prevent him from ruling the country.

“We are in no doubt that we will be able to revive him… but he will probably not be able to resume his duties,” the source said.

Israelis and world leaders have already braced themselves for the end of the Sharon era, fearing his demise would spark new turmoil in a region struggling to find the path to peace after decades of conflict.

His plight has revived traumatic memories of the death of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin a decade ago, whose assassination by a Jewish extremist triggered a wave of violence and a collapse of the peace process.

His passing from politics will also leave stranded his new Kadima party that had been on course to emerge the largest player after an early general election fixed for March 28, although polls have so far given it strong leads.

With Sharon in intensive care, his stand-in, Ehud Olmert, has pledged business as usual.

Elder statesman Shimon Peres said he will endorse Olmert to lead Kadima into the next election, as did the former head of Israel’s domestic security service, Avi Dichter.

Olmert, while respected, has neither the clout nor the power base that enabled Sharon to bulldoze his way through opposition to last year’s pull-out from the Gaza Strip, the defining moment of his five-year premiership.

Among the trickiest decisions of his acting premiership will be to rule whether to allow Arab residents of East Jerusalem to vote in this month’s Palestinian election.

Public Security Minister Gideon Ezra announced on Monday that candidates for the Ramallah-based Parliament will be allowed to campaign in East Jerusalem, occupied and then annexed in 1967.

However, he told Israeli radio that the radical Hamas movement, behind the majority of anti-Israeli attacks in the last five years, will not be able to canvass for votes.

Ezra also did not confirm how or even whether voting could take place.
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has threatened to scrap the whole ballot if East Jerusalem residents cannot take part in the democratic process.

Two prominent candidates, independent MP Hanan Ashrawi and presidential election runner-up Mustafa Barghuti, were last week forcibly stopped while canvassing in the Arab quarter of the Old City.

Speaking to Agence France-Press on Monday, however, Ashrawi minimised the impact of the latest Israeli decision.

“I was not personally informed, but we reject the conditions imposed such as getting police permission or excluding candidates from Hamas,” she said.

“We want a clear Israeli political decision on the entire electoral process in Jerusalem,” she added.—AFP

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