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Fall of a Titan

Posted by Eliot Weinstein on January 4, 2006

On Wednesday night, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suffered severe cerebral hemorrhaging. At Jerusalem’s Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital, Sharon was placed under general anesthesia, and he underwent a six-hour life-threatening operation, as well as a follow-up operation Thursday morning, to stop the bleeding. These procedures appear to have been successful, but doctors are keeping Sharon in an induced coma. Sharon’s vital signs are stable, but he has experienced brain damage, the amount of which cannot be verified until he is conscious.

Professor Shlomo Mor-Yosef, the hospital’s director, has refuted rumors that Sharon is dead, and has pointed out that Sharon’s pupils are responding to light, suggesting that some (perhaps much) brain function remains.

Upon Sharon’s anesthetization, his governmental powers were transfered to Finance Minister Ehud Olmert, who will serve as Interim Prime Minister of Israel, possibly until Israel’s March 28 election. Sharon had a minor stroke on December 18 (apparently caused by a congenital heart defect), and he had been scheduled to undergo heart surgery today to prevent further such strokes. He had planned to temporarily transfer power to Olmert and return to work following the surgery, but it is now uncertain if Sharon will ever be physically and mentally capable of serving in public office again.

Controversy has erupted regarding the quality of the medical advice Sharon has received. Following his stroke last month, Sharon was placed on blood thinners, which may have made it more difficult for doctors to stop the cerebral bleeding. Before it became clear what was happening Wednesday evening, Sharon’s entourage decided to take him to the hospital in Jerusalem, where he was scheduled for the heart operation, rather than the Soroka Hospital in Beersheba, which was closer to the ranch in the Negev where Sharon had been staying. Mor-Yosef defended the decision to treat Sharon at Hadassah, where his case was better known, and has maintained that the blood-thinner treatment was correct.

Shin Bet, the Israeli internal security service, has called up reserves for the duration of the crisis. Established procedures dictate extensive additional security protection for both Sharon and Olmert.

Sharon’s incapacitation contributes to the already substantial turmoil of Israeli politics. On November 8, Amir Peretz (leader of Israel’s union organizations) defeated former Prime Minister Shimon Peres in the Israeli Labor party primary election. Peretz pulled his party out of the “national unity” coalition government that had supported Sharon’s unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip. When it became clear that much of Sharon’s Likud party was opposed to his plans for similar disengagement from the West Bank, Benjamin Netanyahu, a former Prime Minister who resigned from Sharon’s cabinet over the Gaza withdrawal, became the first of several hard-liners to challenge Sharon for Likud leadership. On November 21, Sharon, Olmert, and their closest allies left the Likud party, which Sharon helped found in the 1970s, and formed a new centrist party called Kadima (which translates to “forward”, although the party was initially called “national responsibility”).

Over the past few weeks, polls indicated that Kadima, led by Sharon, would win more seats in the Knesset (Israeli parliament) than either Labor or Likud. Although initial polls suggest that Kadima led by Olmert or Peres (who supports the new party but is not officially a member) would do almost as well as if Sharon were still in charge, it is too early to assess the electoral prospects of Kadima, which many Israeli voters favored simply because it was “the party of Sharon”.

While Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has expressed his hopes for Sharon’s death, the overall Arab reaction has been more mixed. Other world leaders have opined, with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who by his own admission has attempted to change his county’s traditional dislike of Israel, offering surprisingly emotional sentiments. “This is a very painful event on a human level and an absolutely negative one on the political level,” Berlusconi said during a radio interview.

At this point, I will refrain from further analysis or speculation, except to point out that the formation of a new Israeli governing coalition, led by Kadima with Sharon as Prime Minister, would have represented the best hope for the continued withdrawal of Israeli soldiers and settlers from the Palestinian territories, and thus for a lasting peace. For this reason, those who desire a peaceful solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict should extend their sympathies to Sharon and should hope that his successors in Kadima are able to continue their leader’s work and to prevent the peace process from degenerating once more into a partisan tug-of-war between Labor and Likud.

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