Israel political truce ends as Sharon stable

Israeli politics resumed in earnest on Thursday as four Likud ministers were set to hand in letters of resignation while Prime Minister Ariel Sharon remained “serious but stable” after a massive brain haemorrhage.

Doctors have expressed amazement at the 77-year-old leader’s powers of recovery and a series of upbeat medical reports from the hospital where he is in intensive care have sunk a truce in electioneering for a March poll.

The leader of Sharon’s old right-wing party, Benjamin Netanyahu, was quick to launch a vitriolic attack on the caretaker government, pushing the four remaining Cabinet ministers from Likud into agreeing to resign.

Three of them have submitted letters of resignation to Netanyahu following his request that they step down on Thursday so as not to implement the policies of Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, public and army radio reported.

Agriculture Minister Israel Katz and Health Minister Danny Naveh told the radio stations that Netanyahu would submit their letters to the government secretariat later on Thursday.

Education Minister Limor Livnat had also handed in a letter with Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom expected to do so later in the day, the radio stations reported.

“I am in favour of resigning from the Cabinet,” Katz told army radio.

The party, which has been in crisis since Sharon jumped ship to create his new centrist movement Kadima six weeks before his stroke, is at loggerheads with Olmert, who was one of the first from Likud to defect to Kadima.

Netanyahu is reluctant to see his ministers involved in government plans to allow Palestinian living in east Jerusalem to vote in their own general election on January 25.

In a vote likely to see hardliners seal their grip on Likud, the party was voting on Thursday for its candidates for the March 28 general election.

The centrist Shinui, and ultra-right-wing National Religious Party and National Union were also electing their candidates.

Labour, which has accused both Likud and Kadima of being two sides of the same anti-peace, anti-poor coin, will hold a similar vote next Tuesday.

It remains unclear, however, when Kadima will draw up its own list of candidates with its leader still in intensive care.

Party officials had seized on a series of hopeful comments from doctors to suggest that Sharon, a towering figure and war hero in Israel whose fate is deemed crucial, might yet be able to head their candidate list.

More than a week after the massive brain haemorrhage that plunged him into a coma, he remained “serious but stable” with a “normal” heartbeat the Hadassah hospital announced on Thursday.

Surgeons have already pronounced the premier out of immediate danger. Although doctors have doubted whether Sharon will ever again be able to lead the country, his chief neurosurgeon Felix Umansky said his progress so far had defied all expectations.

“He is a very strong person. If someone had told me this was going to happen a week ago, I wouldn’t have believed it,” he said.

Umansky stressed that the surgical team could not be too hasty in fully ending the prime minister’s sedation, and only when that had been done could they begin to gauge whether he would fully recover his faculties.

Politicians from both Likud and Labour have accused Kadima of abusing the prime minister’s name, acutely sensitive that Sharon’s plight has maximised public support for his fledgling centrist movement.

Kadima has levelled the same accusations against Netanyahu for allegedly presenting himself as Sharon’s natural successor.

Jumping on the bandwagon of one of the most sacred tenets in Israel, of Jerusalem as its undivided capital, Netanyahu accused the interim government of making concessions that undermined the longstanding policy.

His offensive came over government plans to allow residents of annexed Arab east Jerusalem to vote in this month’s Palestinian election.

The decision, which had already been announced in principle by Kadima member and former Likud stalwart, Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz, is due to be sealed at Sunday’s Cabinet meeting.

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