Ariel Sharon’s doctors describe his stroke and brain hemorrhage as very serious.
"He [Sharon] was brought with stroke, haemorrhage stroke, and high blood pressure. He was transferred to the imaging center, the diagnosis of hemorrhage stroke was established. He was transferred to the operating theater in which he underwent neurosurgical surgery. At the same time he was treated with medication to stop the bleeding," Shlomo Mor-Yosef, director of Jerusalem's Hadassah Hospital, said earlier today at a news conference.
In a measure of the gravity of Sharon’s condition, his ministerial powers have temporarily been transferred to Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
The illness leaves the future of one of the Mideast’s pivotal figures highly uncertain, and raises serious questions of where the Israeli-Palestinian peace process goes from here.
That is because in recent years Sharon has become the single most powerful force in Israeli politics. Still more recently, he has used that power to push Israel toward recognizing that peace will only come with the creation of a Palestinian state.
The push has been on Sharon’s own terms and has been controversial inside Israel and often criticized by the Palestinians. It is notably marked by Israel’s unilateral withdrawal of Israeli troops from the Gaza Strip, which was completed in September last year.
Still, some Israeli analysts note, Sharon’s unilateral initiatives have been the only movement in the otherwise deadlocked effort to achieve a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Bernard Susser, of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies of Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv, said Sharon recently showed his political power by founding a new party, Kadima (Progress).
Susser noted that to do so, Sharon stripped voters away from his own former Likud Party, which has taken a hard-line toward the peace process, and from the left-leaning Labor Party, which is generally seen as more favorable toward making peace.
"The strange thing about the Kadima Party [is] that a man broke ranks with his own party and brought with him in his move enormous support from those who supported him in the right center, center, and in the left center," Susser said. According to the most recent polls, Kadima was set to win 42 seats in the 120-seat Knesset when elections are held in March, he added.
According to Susser, Sharon appeals to Israelis because he is seen as a hard-nosed realist who can make peace without compromising Israel’s security. "He was for continuing the disengagement in the West Bank," he said. "It appeared very clear that was his direction, and many of these potential voters saw Sharon as the guarantor that any peace that would be made would not be made on the basis of wishy-washy ideals or some sort of vision of a new Mideast but that it would be made by a tough-minded military leader who would not give in at all simply in order to make peace."
Should Sharon now be incapacitated by illness or die, it is unclear whether his new Kadima party can continue without its charismatic leader. It also puts in question whether the new centrist movement will continue or whether Israeli politicians will again become deadlocked over how to proceed with disengagement on the West Bank.
Meanwhile, Palestinian leaders today gave mixed reactions to the illness of a leader who in the past championed the Israeli settler movement but more recently sought to redefine Israel’s borders in terms of a future Palestinian state.
"Ariel Sharon is definitely one of the most important political personalities in the Middle East so his absence is a very significant development," Palestinian Labor Minister Ghassan al-Khatib said today.
But al-Khatib also said he doesn’t see the possible removal of Sharon from the political scene as necessarilly bad for future peace prospects. "Sharon hasn't been successful in achieving either peace or security for the people of Israel," he said. "He wasn't able to contribute to moving the peace process forward. So, I think his absence is not going to be necessarily a bad news for the peace prospects between Israelis and Palestinians."
However, whether Israeli could immediately produce another leader of Sharon’s popularity to negotiate with the Palestinians is -- for now -- impossible to predict.