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Israel's Sharon Hospitalized After Stroke

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon attends a ceremony in Jerusalem, Jan. 4.
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Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon attends a ceremony in Jerusalem, Jan. 4.

JERUSALEM (AP) - Prime Minister Ariel Sharon fought for his life Thursday following seven hours of emergency surgery to stop widespread bleeding in his brain. The massive stroke made it unlikely that he would return to power.

Vice Premier Ehud Olmert was named acting prime minister and convened the Cabinet for a special session, where Sharon's large chair at the center of the long oval table remained empty. "This is a difficult situation that we are not accustomed to," Olmert told the somber ministers.

A brain scan after surgery showed that the bleeding had been stopped, and the 77-year-old prime minister was transferred to the intensive care unit, said Dr. Shlomo Mor-Yosef, the director of Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem.

Israeli TV's Channel 2 station quoted an unidentified senior hospital official as saying Sharon was not in a vegetative state and that his reflexes were responding to stimulation.

The Channel 2 report did not elaborate. It also quoted Dr. Zeev Feldman, an Israeli neurosurgeon who is not involved in Sharon's treatment, as saying that the test results were "good news."

At a midafternoon briefing, Mor-Yosef said Sharon was in serious but stable condition on a respirator in "deep sedation." He will remain sedated for another 24 hours at least, Mor-Yosef said.

He denied widespread rumors that Sharon's condition was far worse than doctors have let on and promised to issue immediate updates on any change.

Sharon's sons, Omri and Gilad, were at their father's bedside. Rabbi David Grossman, a family friend, said of them: "You don't see tears. You see hope, quiet and fortitude."

Sharon's sudden illness, at the height of his popularity, stunned Israelis who had relied on the tough ex-general to steer them through turbulent times. Rabbis called on Israelis to flock to synagogues and say special prayers.

The daily newspaper Yediot Ahronot ran a headline that said: "The last battle."

Palestinians followed reports on Sharon's condition with a mix of apprehension and glee, and some officials said they feared the dramatic events would derail Jan. 25 parliament elections in the West Bank and Gaza. Despite his pullout from Gaza last year, Sharon is still widely reviled in the Arab world for his tough actions against Palestinians.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas said he is following Sharon's health crisis "with great worry," but that it would not put off the Palestinian balloting.

"No doubt what happens to Sharon affects Israel first, but it will not affect our elections," Abbas said.

Close Sharon associates said they did not expect him to return to office.

Despite the illness, Israel's elections will be held as scheduled on March 28, Attorney General Meni Mazuz said after the Cabinet meeting. Sharon had been expected to easily win re-election at the head of the moderate Kadima Party he created to free his hands for further peace moves with the Palestinians.

Many Israelis see Sharon -- an overweight war hero and longtime hawk who changed tack and withdrew from the Gaza Strip last year -- as the best hope for achieving a peace deal with the Palestinians.

His illness would create a power vacuum in the government and cloud Kadima's prospects.

Sharon was put in an ambulance at his ranch Wednesday evening after complaining of feeling unwell. The stroke happened during the hourlong drive to Hadassah, Dr. Shmuel Shapira told Channel 10 TV.

Doctors at Hadassah put him on a respirator and began emergency surgery about midnight (5 p.m. EST Wednesday). They said they had stopped the bleeding during initial surgery, but Sharon was sent back to the operating room because a brain scan showed he required more treatment. He later had a second scan before being moved to the ICU, Mor-Yosef said.

Surgery apparently had been complicated by an anticoagulant Sharon took following a mild stroke Dec. 18. The medication may also have contributed to Wednesday's stroke. Sharon originally had been scheduled to undergo a procedure Thursday to seal a hole in his heart that contributed to the initial stroke.

Independent experts said that while the medication, an anticoagulant called enoxaparin, did not cause the blood vessel in Sharon's head to burst, the bleeding would probably not have been so severe if he had not been taking it.

Mor-Yosef did not give a prognosis, but neurosurgeons not involved in Sharon's treatment said a full recovery was not likely following such a massive stroke. They said it usually takes at least a day after surgery to determine the extent of any damage.

"All the parameters ... are as expected following this type of surgery. Part of the treatment of the prime minister, in order to preserve low pressure in the skull, is sedation and respiration for at least the next 24 hours," Mor-Yosef said.

Outside doctors said chances of recovery were slim, especially because of the length of the surgery.

"For them to have to go back in twice, that's not good," said Dr. Emil Popovic, a neurosurgeon at Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital in Perth, Australia. "At 77, not too many people make a good recovery from a brain hemorrhage."

Professor Gabi Barabash, the director of Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv, said it could take at least a week after Sharon emerges from sedation before the extent of his brain damage can be assessed. It could take even longer to make a prognosis, he said.

U.S. National Security Council official Elliott Abrams and State Department official David Welch were to have met with Sharon's top adviser on Thursday evening to try to settle a dispute about the Palestinian election, but the trip was rescheduled for the weekend.

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi also put off his visit, scheduled for Sunday.

Israelis and world leaders expressed concern and offered prayers for Sharon.

President Bush praised Sharon as "a man of courage and peace,"saying he and first lady Laura Bush "share the concerns of the Israeli people ... and we are praying for his recovery."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also praised Sharon's "enormous courage" and said that even without his leadership, the desire for peace remains strong among Israelis.

Israeli financial markets were roiled by the news. The shekel seesawed throughout the day, and the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange's blue chip TA-25 index, which plunged as much as 6.2 percent in early trading, ended down 3.9 percent in heavy trading.

Arab TV broadcasters beamed out largely straightforward, nonstop live coverage about Sharon.

Ahmed Jibril, a radical Palestinian leader in Damascus, Syria, called the stroke a gift from God.

Sharon aide Raanan Gissin warned that if any of Israel's foes tried to "exploit this situation ... the security forces and IDF (Israeli military) are ready for any kind of challenge."

But a Palestinian commentator on the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya network offered Sharon unexpected praise as "the first Israeli leader who stopped claiming Israel had a right to all of the Palestinians' land," a reference to Israel's Gaza withdrawal.

"A live Sharon is better for the Palestinians now, despite all the crimes he has committed against us," said Ghazi al-Saadi.

By law, Olmert assumed the post of acting prime minister for 100 days. An election will be held in that time, apparently on March 28. If Sharon should die, the Cabinet would choose a replacement, said legal analyst Moshe Negbi.

Sharon has been prominent in Israeli life for more than five decades, advancing through the ranks of the army and gaining attention in the 1967 war. He left the military for politics, forging the hard-line Likud Party, which came to power in 1977.

As defense minister, Sharon directed Israel's ill-fated invasion of Lebanon in 1982 during which an Israeli commission found him indirectly responsible for a massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Chatilla refugee camps by Christian Phalangist soldiers.

Sharon re-emerged as prime minister in 2001 soon after the outbreak of a new round of Israeli-Palestinian violence. Two years later, he reversed his decades-long course of supporting Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, pushing through a plan to withdraw from Gaza and part of the West Bank. The pullout was completed in September.

The withdrawal fractured Likud, and he bolted to form Kadima. He was compiling a list of candidates for the election when he fell ill.

In the election, Sharon was to face off against Likud's candidate, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Amir Peretz, the union leader who recently took control of the dovish Labor Party.

Olmert, who could emerge as Sharon's successor as head of Kadima, would likely have a far tougher time in the election than Sharon.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Gradstein
Linda Gradstein has been the Israel correspondent for NPR since 1990. She is a member of the team that received the Overseas Press Club award for her coverage of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the team that received Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia University Award for Excellence in Broadcast Journalism for her coverage of the Gulf War. Linda spent 1998-9 as a Knight Journalist Fellow at Stanford University.