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ARIEL SHARON'S LAST BATTLE?

Ariel Sharon In Critical Condition As Surgeons Stem Massive Bleeding In His Brain

Powers Transferred To Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert

In Midst of Election Campaign, Jewish State Plunged Into Great Political Uncertainty

PM Ariel Sharon

Brain surgeons have stemmed the massive bleeding to Ariel Sharon's brain but the Israeli leader remains in critical condition. Finance Minister Ehud Olmert has been appointed Acting Prime Minister will full powers. Olmert convened an emergency session of the Israeli cabinet to discuss the situation. Neurologists say privately there is almost no chance that Sharon will be able to return to office.

Israel's Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert convened an emergency cabinet session in the wake of Ariel Sharon's critical condition. At the cabinet table, Ariel Sharon's chair was left vacant, and the atmosphere was somber and portentous.

'We all hope and pray that Ariel Sharon, who survived so many past battles, will survive this battle as well'. That was the message from Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert at the emergency session of the Israeli cabinet. Olmert went on to say Israel's strength would prevail in this difficult hour. After more than eight hours in the operating room, surgeons succeeded in stemming the massive bleeding to Sharon's brain. However, he remains in critical condition and it will take some time before doctors can determine what permanent damage has been caused. Privately, medical experts say that if Sharon lives there is almost no chance he will be able to return to office.

Ariel Sharon's two sons Omri and Gilad were at Hadassah Ein Kerem hospital in Jerusalem. The question is not whether Sharon will return to the Prime Minister's office but whether he will survive the massive bleeding to his brain. Full powers were transferred to Ehud Olmert after Ariel Sharon was rushed to the operating room.

Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (Photo: Amit Shabi

What happens now? Overnight, the Jewish state has been plunged into a period of great uncertainty. Sharon was on his way to winning the general election on March 28th and forming the next government. But now his sudden leaving of office leaves a huge vacuum and the race will be on to fill it. Tomorrow's opinion polls may give provide some indication of how the Israeli public is reacting. However, only time will tell which leader will come to the forefront. None can possibly fulfill Sharon's unique position in Israeli politics. The Kadima party that Sharon formed in his own image, will likely slide in the polls: it is impossible to say how far at this point.

Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert now has a head start. If Olmert can now establish himself as 'the take charge guy' in the center of the political stage, he could go all the way. Olmert met immediately with Sharon's top aides and may keep them on as a sign of continuity.In the campaign to carry out the unilateral Gaza withdrawal, Olmert acted as Sharon's trailblazer in articulating why it was the national interest. Olmert's closest rival in Kadima is the highly touted Justice Minister Zippy Livni but she is not expected to challenge Olmert for party leadership in light of Kadima's new precarious position. Critics had previously charged that Kadima was no more than Ariel Sharon's one-man show; Olmert will now have to prove the party is more than that. Despite the fact, that Sharon suffered a stroke last month, the party had not even considered the possibility that Sharon would have been incapacitated. Olmert can be expected to show continuity and also express strong support for the Roadmap with the Palestinians; if the Palestinians rein in the terrorists. On the other hand Olmert, like Sharon, will back a relentless counter-terror campaign. (Despite coming under fire in the Likud over the disengagement, Olmert is no softie. He once spoke about 'eliminating' Yasser Arafat, something Sharon never proposed).

Likud: If it was a foregone conclusion that Sharon would lead Kadima to an election victory, all that is now uncertain. Likud leader Bibi Netanyahu has reacted to the crisis by keeping Likud cabinet ministers in the cabinet. They were to have tendered their resignations on Sunday. The Kadima party soared to over forty MKs in the polls at the expense of the Likud. Netanyahu will now be able to make a determined effort to 'return home' the many Likudniks who followed Sharon to Kadima.

This is what is so striking about Ariel Sharon; not only his moving from the far right Likud to the center, but also that he commanded such credibility with Israeli voters who considered him the best leader for Israel. On this score, no other Israeli politician had a chance of beating him. Surprisingly, after Sharon suffered his first stroke last month, he even gained in the polls. But if Sharon is out of the picture, the election is now up for grabs. Kadima can be expected to rally around Olmert to present a credible, stable party following in Sharon's footsteps. Otherwise, Olmert, Livni, Mofaz, Dichter, Ramon and even Shimon Peres will be left as the politically 'homeless'. The problem is where were Sharon's footsteps heading? He was the ultimate unilateral, pragmatist who alone decided and then delivered, doing whatever it took. That is a mission impossible to follow. Since implementing the Gaza withdrawal, Sharon has kept everyone in the dark including his own Kadima party. So, now without the Sharon 'magnet' drawing massive voter support, Kadima must start from scratch. It has to present and swiftly, a convincing centrist or right of center platform n impossible. After blocking extreme right-winger Moshe Feiglin in the party, Netanyahu will also be making a drive for this spot of the political map.

Labor: Party leader Amir Peretz has been under fire for conducting a lack luster campaign. The result - Labor trails Sharon's Kadima badly with no experienced supporters to champion a dynamic foreign and security policy. With new possibilities opening up after Sharon's departure, Peretz might make a bid for Labor's 'big guns' Ehud Barak and maybe even Shimon Peres who jumped ship to Sharon.

But while the world looks to Israel and tries to ascertain what the outcome will be of Sharon's departure, for most Israelis they will need time to recover from their current state of shock.

David Essing

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