TEL AVIV — After holding its collective breath for two long hours this past Sunday night, waiting for news of Ariel Sharon’s health, Israel appeared to shrug off the prime minister’s mild stroke as a passing incident and returned to normal.
Beneath the nonchalance, however, was a palpable uncertainty. The stroke reminded Israelis that Sharon is their nation’s indispensable man, unchallenged in the polls and certain of victory when the nation goes to the polls next year on March 28.
But at the same time, they were reminded that Sharon is not indestructible, despite his larger-than-life image. He is 77, overweight and vulnerable. And while Israel has laws of succession, there is nobody on the political scene who could replace Sharon as a figure of national unity.
Adding to the uncertainty, Sharon is due to face voters in March as head of a new political party, Kadima, that is almost universally considered a personal vehicle. His personal popularity has given his party a huge lead in pre-election polls, with nearly twice as much support as the second-ranked Labor Party. Sharon’s old party, the Likud, appears set to win barely a third or less of its current Knesset seats.
Sharon was rushed to Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem on Sunday night with what was described as a “mild cerebral vascular event.” He reportedly lost consciousness briefly, but by the time he reached the hospital he was fully conscious and lucid, except for mild speech impairment. Aides rushed to assure the media that Sharon was in no danger and that there was no need for even a temporary transfer of his powers. A few hours later Sharon himself spoke to selected journalists, seeking to ensure that nobody began preparing eulogies.
Doctors said Monday that Sharon had been conscious throughout the hospital stay. “There was no paralysis, and in medical terms he wasn’t confused,” said Dr. Tamir Ben-Hur, Hadassah Hospital’s neurology chief. “He had some difficulty in his speech, which was caused by a small blood clot.”
After a day’s rest he was sent home Tuesday, smiling and looking confident. President Bush called him shortly afterward and advised him to “be careful about food, start exercising and cut back on work hours,” according to an Israeli government statement. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak also called to wish him well and urged him to cut back on his workload.
Not everyone was in an upbeat mood. One right-wing lawmaker, Aryeh Eldad of the pro-settler National Union Party, declared that it “cannot be that the fate of the nation will be dependent on a 1-millimeter blood clot.” He demanded that Sharon’s doctors disclose Sharon’s condition more fully. A right-wing Web site, Israelinsider.com, quoted unnamed “hospital officials” as saying that Sharon had been disoriented during his stay and that he did not recover fully. A handful of rightists were said to be praying openly at the Western Wall for Sharon not to recover.
In Gaza, meanwhile, some Palestinians were said to be celebrating the crisis.
For most, however, popular columnist Nahum Barnea summed up the national mood when he wrote in Yediot Aharonot that Sharon’s supporters and opponents were united in hopes for his good health. But Barnea cautioned that Sharon would do well to instruct his physicians to be open about his condition, and warned that Sharon’s Kadima party could lose seats in the upcoming elections as a result of his stroke.
Initials surveys suggested otherwise. Polls taken Monday by the daily Yediot and Ma’ariv newspapers indicated that the stroke did not weaken Kadima but actually strengthened it, adding as many as three seats to its projected showing in the 120-member Knesset. It was not clear whether the bounce indicated sympathy for Sharon or renewed respect for his fighting spirit.
A poll the next day in the daily Ha’aretz, following Benjamin Netanyahu’s victory in the Likud primaries, showed the Likud gaining two seats to 14, thanks largely to the ending of the Likud’s unnerving leadership vacuum. Labor fell two seats to 21, while Kadima was at its pre-stroke level, 39 seats.
The Yediot poll asked voters if their votes in March would be affected by Sharon’s health crisis. Fully 91% said they would not be influenced.
The polls had another finding that will be less comforting to Sharon. If the prime minister were somehow removed from the picture, only one figure in his Kadima party is popular enough to maintain the party’s lead in the polls — and then just barely. According to the Ma’ariv poll, Kadima would win 30 Knesset seats, narrowly edging out the Labor Party, if it were led by Justice Minister Tsipi Livni, who emerged during the turmoil of the past year as a new political star and one of Sharon’s closest allies. Finance Minister Ehud Olmert, another close Sharon associate, would win the new party only 26 seats, losing the elections to the Labor Party, which would win 30 seats against Olmert.
While Sharon’s advisers insistently dismissed his stroke as a non-event, they admitted that Kadima’s planned election campaign will now shift. Yediot quoted aides to Sharon’s top spin-doctor, Reuven Adler, acknowledging that the crisis underscores the lack of a natural successor to Sharon, the aides said. There is no other candidate at this point except for Sharon, who is seen in the public as able to lead the country in dealing with the complex problems it faces, including the Iranian nuclear threat and Hamas’s threatened takeover of the Palestinian Authority.
Sharon’s top advisers reportedly consulted with his sons, Omri and Gilad, and decided that from now on, Kadima electioneering will highlight not only Sharon but also the “dream team” he has assembled around him, including Livni, Olmert, former Labor leader Shimon Peres and former Shin Bet security chief Avi Dichter.
After leaving the hospital, Sharon held a series of meetings in which he was updated about the army’s handling of Qassam fire from Gaza into Israel and operations against terrorist groups in the West Bank. “One thing is certain,” said a senior political figure, who was unwilling to be named. “Sharon is a basic component of life in Israel whose presence has become a vital organ in Israeli politics. The public and the political establishment got a reminder that Sharon must not be taken for granted.”